The spiny terminological conundrum of ekhidna and ekhinos

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[This is a guest post by Stewart Nicol]

Greek particles

I am a zoologist and comparative physiologist who has worked extensively on the monotremes, the platypus and the echidna. I have been putting together some notes on the naming of the these animals. After originally being placed in the genus Myrmecophaga with the other, totally unrelated, anteaters, the echidna was given the specific name Myrmecophaga aculeata (prickly anteater) by George Shaw in 1792.  It was named Echidna histrix by Georges Cuvier, misspelling Hystrix (Greek for porcupine). In 1811 Johann Illiger published an overhaul of the Linnaean system and replaced Cuvier’s genus name Echidna with Tachylossus (fast tongue) making the full binomial Tachyglossus aculeatus. The Genus name Echidna would have had priority but it had previously been applied to a genus of Moray eels, so the echidna became Tachyglossus aculeatus, but popularly known as the echidnaCuvier doesn’t say why he used the name echidna, but the general assumption is that it alludes to a monster in Greek mythology , ἔχιδνα or ekhidna, half woman (mammal) and half snake (reptile), because the echidna was believed to combine characteristics of reptiles and mammals. Unfortunately, the word ekhidna is very similar to the ekhinos (ἐχῖνος) which is the Ancient Greek word for hedgehog, and appears in the names echinoderm and echinacea because they have spines, giving rise to the misapprehension that the name echidna means spiny.

This is not what my query is about though. In 1876 another type of echidna, now known as the long-beaked echidna, was described from skulls collected in New Guinea. It was larger but was clearly a type of echidna, and initially given the name Tachyglossus bruijnii after A. A. Bruijn, a Dutch merchant and natural historian, who donated the first skull to the Museo Civicio de Storia Naturale Giacomo Doria at Genoa. The next year, the American taxonomist Theodore Gill, by all accounts a scholarly man but a boring lecturer, recognising that it was markedly different from Tachyglossus, placed it into a new genus, writing “the newly discovered form may therefore be appropriately contrasted under the name Zaglossus (Za, augmentative particle, and glossus, tongue) Bruinjii, with the previously known Tachyglossus hystrix and Tachyglossus setosus.

My question is then, what meaning is this name intended to convey?

Selected readings


  1. Jichang Lulu said,

    June 30, 2023 @ 3:40 pm

    I’m not sure I understand what the question is, since the post transparently implies that Zaglossus is intended to mean ‘big-tongued’.

    Whether that is properly called an ‘augmentative’ is another matter. Something that forms nouns from nouns, adding ‘big’ or ‘utter’ to the meaning is usually called an augmentative; intensives form nouns from nouns; but both terms are also used for other types, and it’s common for an affix to have both these types (English mega-). The type of ζα- that’s relevant here takes nouns to adjectives.

    Ζα- has been understood since classical antiquity to be an Aeolic form of δια- (ζ for δι is common in Aeolic). The relationship to the somewhat similar prefix δα- is less clear.

    Claire Le Feuvre has written about both ζα- and δα-. These two references provide a recent overview of this issue.

  2. Jichang Lulu said,

    June 30, 2023 @ 8:23 pm

    …I meant that intensives form (e.g.) adjectives from adjectives.

  3. martin schwartz said,

    July 1, 2023 @ 2:02 am

    Gr ekhídna is usually taken as a viper vel sim., cf. Gr ékhis in the snake category. I wouldn't hedge my bets on 'spine'.
    Manichean Middle Persian has the word as 'qdn'G (alephs, gamma)
    in a glossary in WB Henning, Sogdica.

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