14 October 2007

How the Tiger and the Tigris Got their Names (Updated)

I came down with an awful case of tigrology last week.

I was going mad, trying to discover the origin of the words for tiger, the animal, and Tigris, the river.

Believe me, there's nothing worse than an attack of etymological questions: it can turn a sober scholar into a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic in a trice. My apologies ... but I'd like to take you with me around the bend.

It's all the fault of Isidore of Seville, who wrote a big big book, the Etymologies (in Latin), an encyclopedic account of just about everything known in the western world in the years around 600 AD, when Isidore was alive. After the Bible, Etymologies was perhaps the most influential book in the Latin West for nearly a thousand years. If you wanted to know anything about what the ancients thought about art, music, nature, God or grammar, you'd check with Isidore first thing.

The only problem is, as Emily Wilson tells us (in an enjoyable review in the Times Literary Supplement, 3 Aug. 2007) that Isidore is like a bad search engine, with little or no control over his sources. Not for nothing is Isidore the patron saint of the Internet! Much of the information he provides is blatantly false and most of his supposed etymologies are complete twaddle. They go like this:
"Health (salus) takes its name from salt (sal), for nothing is better for us than salt (sal) and sun (sol)"

"Cats are called cats because they catch mice (catuma captura vocant)

"Days (dies) are so called from 'the gods' (deus, ablative plural diis).
Or, as Isidore himself might have put it -- 'days are called after dayities.' Groan.

So I was surprised when Prof. Wilson seemed to take him seriously on a point of Persian etymology. This is what tripped me up:
Isidore knows that Latin draws on other languages: [he writes] "the tiger (tigris) is so called because of its rapid flight, for this is what the Persians and Medes call an arrow."
And Isidore added helpfully, "The Tigris River is named after the tiger because it is the fastest of all rivers."

This conflation of tiger (the beast) and Tigris (the river) continues to this day and so does their supposed derivation from the Persian for 'arrow' (check your dictionary: most, but not all, still give it; and it's all over the internet as well). The idea first appeared in Greek in Strabo's Geography (early 1st C. AD), when he says of the river Tigris (Gr. Tigris) :
because of its swiftness ... whence the name Tigris, since the Median word for "arrow" is "tigris."
And it is picked up in Latin in Pliny's Natural History (mid-1st C.), who describes the river:
as soon as it begins to flow, though with a slow current, has the name of Diglito. When its course becomes more rapid, it assumes the name of Tigris given to it on account of its swiftness, that word signifying an arrow in the Median language.

But why, I asked myself, should anyone believe that the name of a river which runs back in its history to the Sumerians should have a Persian name, and one so far-fetched as ''arrow''; and why would an Indian animal, albeit one that ranged into Persian territory, share the same etymology of 'arrow'?

I fretted. This way lies madness ... but I had to go on. Here is what I've come up with in my quest.

I don't question, of course, that the Greeks may have actually learnt both words in Persia or that, if they did, in that sense they do come from Persian. But that is all I accept.

Let's start with the river. It's the easier of the two. What we know:

The Sumerian name for the river was Idigna, which seems simply to have meant 'running water' or possibly 'river with high banks'. When the Semitic-speaking Akkadians arrived in the region they borrowed the name, turning it into (I)Diq/gla(t) -- and note how close that is to the word Pliny recorded for the higher stream. The Semitic trail continues via the biblical Hebrew Hiddekel (one of the rivers running through Eden, Genesis 2:14) and the later Aramaic Deglath or Diglat, eventually to become Arabic Diğlä -- which is today pronounced in Iraq, I'm told, as Dijla.

At first sight, the Old Persian Tigrā seems to stick out like a sore thumb, looking completely different. But I'd bet a couple of Sassanian drachmas that Tigrā comes from a form rather like DIG-LA: where D shifts to a T sound and L to R. In short, the Persians, too, seem to have adapted a name going back to Sumerian -- via the intermediary of local Semitic languages.

So the Greeks were wrong to derive the river's name from Persian tigra- "sharp, pointed", Avestan " tigri- "arrow", and to imagine that the river ran at the speed of an arrow. Perhaps this is what they were told once they arrived in Persia, for folk etymology is always beguiling and words of unknown origin inevitably yield to a play of known words.

But what about the animal, the tiger? Could Isidore of Seville have possibly got this part right?

I doubt it. But it is a tough one.

The beast is Babr (or Bebr) in Middle Persian. Surprisingly, this does not descend from any of the early Indian words for tiger (vyAghra, pRdAku, zArdUla). Note that the Sanskrit vyAghra means 'who tears apart', rather a better name for a ferocious animal than an anodyne 'sharp, pointed' or 'arrow' ("How, Daddy, did the tiger get its name?" "It's faster than a speeding arrow, son." Just so.)

So I went back and looked at the Greek history of the tiger. I suspect that we've been looking in slightly the wrong direction: I can see no reason that the Greeks would have first met up with the tiger in Persia.

The animal only enters Greek writings after the Indian campaigns of Alexander the Great (who died in 323 BC). Alexander's general, Nearchus, we are told, saw a tiger skin during the Indian campaign, but no tiger. King Seleucus 'the Victor', first Seleucid ruler of Mesopotamia, sent a live tiger to Athens around 300 BC. This might have been an animal captured during his own Indian wars around 305 BC or, more likely, a royal gift sent to him by an Indian prince some time before his death in 297. Since, even in antiquity, the western range of the tiger seems limited to eastern Turkey, north Iran, and the wild lands between the Caspian and Black Seas, Seleucus' tiger need not have been of Persian origin; so where would Seleucus have learnt what the beast was called?

We have two clues: tiger is vagr in Armenian (Armenia then, remember, was roughly today's Kurdish territory), and vigr in Georgian. Somewhere up that way, perhaps, on the roads to Bactria and Afghanistan, the Greeks first came across live tigers. The all-knowing Pliny assures us that most tigers lived on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea (in Hyrcania) and in India.

But Pliny didn't know much about tigers.* On the contrary, he passed on this tall tale:

The tiger ... can run with terrific speed. To take the tiger's cubs, the hunter prepares a fast horse and steals the tiger's entire litter, and rides away, changing to fresh horses as necessary. The tiger, seeing that her cubs are gone, tracks them by scent and chases the hunter. When the hunter sees the tiger catching up, he drops one cub. The tiger stops to pick up the cub before resuming the chase. The hunter repeats this ruse until he reaches his ship; in this way he escapes with at least one of the cubs, leaving the tiger to rage impotently on the shore.

You will not be surprised to know that Isidore of Seville swallowed this story almost whole ... and then went one better: instead of dropping cub after cub, the hunter throws down a mirror or a glass sphere, whereupon the tiger, seeing its own reflection in the sphere and thinking it is her stolen cub, stops to nurse the supposed cub. This gives the robber time to escape.

Just so. As befits a Christian bishop, the mirror symbolizes the cost of vanity and pride. Beware ladies, the tigress loses her cubs for just such a sin. In any case, this became a favoured medieval theme, especially popular in the 12th-13th C illustrated beastiaries (a few of which are reproduced on this page).

I don't suppose it was for his Etymologies that Isidore was canonized in 1598, and certainly not for his tigrology.

Perhaps it was because, as Archbishop of Seville (600 - 636), he converted the Spanish Visigothic kings from Arianism to Roman Catholicism. Or was it because he presided over the Council of Toledo in 633, when they tried (as Emily Wilson remarks, not for the first and certainly not for the last time) to eradicate Jews and heretics from Spain? Either act was surely worthy of sainthood, even if that prize was put on hold for nearly 1000 years. Perhaps it was more banal, just politics as usual.** But I like to think that what tipped the scale was his enduring description of Britons: "Britannus comes from brutus (dumb brute)."

With one-liners like that, he is the perfect patron saint for the Internet .

* It's only in the time of Augustus at the beginning of our era that the first tigris is seen in Rome, though I haven't been able to find out when the Latin name was borrowed from Greek.

** In 1598, Pope Clement VIII had brought about a peace treaty between Spain and France. A new Spanish saint might have been part of the price.

My thanks to Esfandiar, Agnes Korn, Luis Mendieta, and Varun Singh and all those on the Parthia-List for their help.

Update 27/12/2017 

Six hundred years after Isidore of Seville's Etymologies,  Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri set out, as it were, to rival if not  surpass the enormousness of Isidore's encyclopaedia with a 9,000-page, 33-volume compendium of everything that exists as it appeared to a very learned man in 14th-century Cairo: in Nihayet al-Arab fi Funun al-Adab, or The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition,* the author (who boasted, in fact, 41 patronymics, and recounts them all) was not one to pass up any tidbit of information on any part of the universe -- though he claims to have restrained himself: "I have sought to be succinct but not overly so."  

And so, we get this story about the tiger.

It is said that the female tiger is impregnated by the wind, and for this reason it is said that it resembles the wind in speed when it runs, and nothing can hunt it.
And this tale, too, has good classical backing. The Latin poet Claudianus (397 A.D.) referred to both the wind's impregnation of the tiger and the hunter's ruse of dropping a mirror or glass sphere to aid his escape
Speedier than the West Wind that is her paramour, rushes the tigress, anger blazing from her stripes, but just as she is about to engulf the terrified hunter in her rapacious maw, she is checked by the mirrored image of her own form. (Rape of Proserpine, Bk. III)
Niether Claudianus nor al-Nuwayri had bothered to read the Greco-Roman poet Oppian who had already denied this story in the late second century:

Tiger, swifter is it than all wild beasts that are: for it runs with the speed of its sire, the West wind himself, yet the West Wind is not its sire; who would believe that wild beasts mated with an airy Bridegroom? For that also is an empty tale, that all of this tribe is female and mates not with a male .. marvels men tell us. ( Cynegetica III: 355 )
 But, then, a denial never gets the same press as the marvelous fable; does it?

* Elias Muhanna, The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition. Princeton University Press, 2017. And note the wonderful review of Muhanna's book by Anna Della Subin, 'If the hare sees the sea', London Review of Books, 30 November 201735-36.


  1. Well, for what it's worth, I was told this once: tai is a sinitic word for big (as in tai-ga, big forest, tai-fun, big wind, tain-shan, big mountains) so clearly tiger is a big GRRRRR.

    Okay, the guy who told me wasn't exactly serious :-)

  2. I love it!

    And Isidore would have believed it, so all our dictionaries would now repeat this etymology.

    Cute 'little GRRRR' picture, too. (My cats are the stars of my Facebook page).

    Thanks for writing,


  3. perhaps you also want to check the Persian word "tighe" (تیغه), which means "blade".

  4. Anonymous15/7/12 12:59

    So does it mean tiger ?
    I didn't understand.

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Anonymous 2. No, Tigris does not come from the same word as tiger. It's a very false etymology.

    1. well, in Hungarian Tigris means and is written as: TIGRIS. Im kinda surprised that all of you guys found every different result, but not this one. Hun - Magyars have their kings line back to Nimrod, Babylon, they was one of the tribes of Sumer, and lived there, Tigris=Tigris ( Tiger, Tigar, Tigra, Tigre etc. and so on on other languages ) However as im not an expert where did English pick up the word. One is Sure, we call the river Tigris, and that means Tiger on other languages. And we call Tigris the tiger as well, same word, just for the river big T Tigris as it is a name. cheers

  6. This was a good, interesting read. My name is Dicle (c is read like g) which is the name of the river Tigris in Turkish. I was researching correct etymological origin of my name for a long time. And living in Italy makes harder to explain my name to people. The river Tigris is called Tigre in Italian, which is also the synonym of the animal tiger. This article is a perfect summary for me. Thank you very much.

    1. Actually, in Italian the Tigris is called "Tigri"(/'tigri/) and the tiger "tigre" (/'tigre/).
      But the plural of "tigre" is "tigri", just to add confusion :D

  7. Well, since the name can convincingly be traced back to the Sumerians, we should probably stick with that etymology.

    Now, here's yet one more addition to folk etymologies. A Kurdish friend told me that the river is called Dijle --though, coming from north Kurdistan, she was probably spelling it as Dicle, i.e. using the Turkish alphabet. The letter "e" is what my ear hears, but other people may hear and write Dicla. She told me that in spring, when the snow is melting, the river carries a lot of water and also a lot of mud, thus changing color. So, it is called Dijle, which means "the two-colored".

  8. Anonymous14/4/16 15:30

    As for the first mention of the tiger in Greek writings, as far as I know this was in Ktesias' Indika from c. 400 BCE. His texts on the tiger have come down to us through Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias, Aelian, and Photius. All of them call the animal martichoras – no help there, etymologically speaking – but what struck me was the description of the animal's tail: “its tail is like that of a land scorpion, containing a sting more than a cubit long at the end. It has other stings on each side of its tail and one on the top of its head, like the scorpion, with which it inflicts a wound that is always fatal. If it is attacked from a distance, it sets up its tail in front and discharges its stings as if from a bow; if attacked from behind, it straightens it out and launches its stings in a direct line to the distance of a hundred feet. The wound inflicted is fatal to all animals except the elephant. The stings are about a foot long and about as thick as a small rush.”
    The way in which the tiger uses these stings is reminiscent of arrows, particularly since they are “discharged as if from a bow” and are “about a foot long”.
    Admittedly, this does not explain the etymology of the word “tiger”.

    Jeannette Drost, Mphil (Ancient Languages and Civilisations)
    Amsterdam, April 2016.

  9. That's a marvelous story, Jeannette, and thank you for posting it. What I suspect happened is that the Greeks learnt the Persian words for tigra- "sharp, pointed", Avestan " tigri- "arrow" and made up the tale of the tiger's tail to explain the name of the tiger. Greeks were always doing that. What do you think?

  10. Hahah nice one! I was just wondering that is there any other language than Hungarian in which Tigris means Tiger. So Hun Magyar mythology traces the kings back to Babylon. They was a " sumerian " ( more likely SEMUR ( god eye )
    tribe. So: TIGER=TIGRIS In Hungarian. Tigris es Eufrates. means The Tiger and the Euphrat.


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