What Does “Hippopotamus” Mean? A Comprehensive Look at the Origin and Significance of the Name

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Key Takeaways:

  • The word “hippopotamus” comes from ancient Greek meaning “river horse”.
  • It refers to a large, semiaquatic African mammal in the family Hippopotamidae.
  • The closest living relatives of hippos are cetaceans like whales and dolphins.
  • Hippopotamus is the third largest land mammal after elephants and rhinos.
  • The name describes the animal’s physical features and habitat as a river-dwelling horse-like creature.


The unusual name “hippopotamus” has a fascinating origin story rooted in ancient Greek. While these hefty mammals may seem like gentle giants lounging about in lakes and rivers, their name reveals key details about their physical attributes and behavior.

This article will provide a comprehensive look at the etymology and significance of the name “hippopotamus”. It will trace its linguistic roots, analyze its literal meaning, and explain how the name captures the animal’s distinctive characteristics. The extensive information will help readers gain a deeper understanding of why the hippopotamus is called the “river horse”.

Evaluating the origin, translation, and descriptive relevance of the hippo’s scientific name provides great insights into zoology and animal classification. The analysis highlights how names can succinctly convey an animal’s appearance, habitat, taxonomy, and more. Whether you’re interested in etymology, African wildlife, or simply curious about the hippoptamus’s unique moniker, this article covers everything you need to know about what “hippopotamus” means.

The Name “Hippopotamus” Comes From Ancient Greek Meaning “River Horse”

The name “hippopotamus” is a compound word derived from ancient Greek. It combines “hippos” meaning “horse” and “potamos” meaning “river”. Thus, the complete name translates to “river horse” – an apt description for these large mammals that spend much of their time in the water.

Specifically, the ancient Greeks combined the words as follows:

  • “Hippos” – From the ancient Greek word “ίππος” (pronounced hip-pos) meaning “horse”. It developed from an earlier Proto-Indo-European word “ekwo-“, also meaning “horse”.
  • “Potamos” – From the Greek “ποταμός” (pronounced pot-am-os) meaning “river” or “running water”. This came from the Proto-Indo-European root “pet” meaning “to flow”.

By combining hippos and potamos, the Greeks created “hippopotamos” – a name that succinctly describes the hippo as a horse-like animal that lives in rivers and lakes. Later on, the name developed into the Latin “hippopotamus” before becoming its modern English form.

What Does "Hippopotamus" Mean? A Comprehensive Look at the Origin and Significance of the Name

The Name Refers to Large, Semiaquatic African Mammals in the Family Hippopotamidae

While early Greeks may have used “hippopotamus” as a generic descriptor for any unknown river dweller, it now refers specifically to the semiaquatic mammals native to sub-Saharan Africa.

There are two main species of hippopotamus:

  • The common hippopotamus or Nile hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)
  • The pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis or Hexaprotodon liberiensis) – a smaller species only found in West Africa

Both species belong to the family Hippopotamidae which includes 6 extinct genera besides the two extant hippo species. Hippopotamuses are therefore often qualified as “common hippos” or “Nile hippos” to distinguish them from pygmy hippos.

The common hippopotamus is one of the largest mammals on land. Males can reach 3,200 kg (7,050 lb) while females weigh up to 1,800 kg (3,970 lb). They inhabit rivers, lakes, swamps, and wetlands where they graze, bathe, and even sleep in the water to regulate their body temperature.

So while early Greeks may have applied “hippopotamus” to any unknown water beast, it now specifically signifies the heavyweight herbivores in Africa instantly recognizable by their stout, rounded bodies, barrel-shaped torsos, wide mouths, and semiaquatic lifestyle.

The Closest Living Relatives of Hippos are Cetaceans Like Whales and Dolphins

While they bear some superficial resemblance to pigs and other even-toed ungulates, hippos are actually closely related to cetaceans – the group containing whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Hippopotamuses shared a common ancestor with cetaceans about 55 million years ago. Evolutionary biologists group them together in the clade Whippomorpha which contains the Cetacea (cetaceans) and Hippopotamidae (hippos) families.

Some key evidence that hippos are close cousins of aquatic mammals like whales:

  • Similar thick and hairless skin with sweat glands and small sensory hairs (vibrissae)
  • Nostrils positioned high on the snout for breathing while immersing most of their body
  • Forelimbs adapted for swimming with paddle-like feet
  • Ears and eyes placed high on the head for seeing above water
  • Powerful tails for swimming propulsion
  • Mammary glands near the groin rather than on the chest
  • Highly aquatic lifestyle and ability to hold their breath underwater

The hippo’s close evolutionary relationship to whales and dolphins is reflected in some of its physical adaptations for an amphibious life. Their name “river horse” only captures one aspect of their semiaquatic existence.

Hippopotamus Means “River Horse” – An Apt Description of the Animal’s Size, Features and Habitat

The name “hippopotamus” succinctly describes several key attributes of the large mammal:

Horse-like features

  • Stocky, quadrupedal stance with four sturdy legs
  • Barrel-shaped, rotund torso with a large belly
  • Small head with sizable mouth, broad nostrils, and elongated snout
  • Short mane along the neck and upper back
  • Hairless hide and nearly hairless tail

Associated with rivers

  • Spends most of its time in water and is well adapted for swimming
  • Found primarily in rivers, lakes, marshes, swamps, and estuaries
  • Requires proximity to water resources for drinking, bathing, and temperature regulation
  • Grazes on riverbank and floodplain vegetation

Massive size

  • One of the largest and heaviest land mammals after elephants and some rhinos
  • Males can reach over 3 tons (6,000 lb), females over 1.5 tons (3,000 lb)

So in summary, “hippopotamus” neatly encapsulates the animal’s:

  • Horse or equine physical features
  • River, lake, or wetland habitat
  • Substantial size as one of the largest land mammals

The name immediately paints a picture of a huge, semiaquatic creature that looks and acts rather like a river-dwelling horse. The Greeks chose an apt descriptor that highlights the hippo’s distinct lifestyle and characteristics.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Meaning of “Hippopotamus”

Here are answers to some common questions about the origin and significance of the name “hippopotamus”:

Why is the hippopotamus called the “river horse”?

The name comes from ancient Greek, combining “hippos” meaning “horse” and “potamos” meaning “river”. Greeks named it for its equine appearance and its amphibious lifestyle in African rivers and wetlands.

What language is the word “hippopotamus” derived from?

The name originated in ancient Greek as “hippopotamos”, from “hippos” (“horse”) + “potamos” (“river”). The Greek roots aptly describe the animal.

How did the Greeks come up with the name?

Seeing the large, unfamiliar creature in African rivers, Greeks likened its stocky shape to a horse and its aquatic habitat to a river. The combined name “river horse” stuck as a fitting descriptive term.

Why is “hippopotamus” preferred over “river horse”?

While “river horse” is a direct translation, “hippopotamus” became the accepted scientific name. It provides specificity as opposed to just a generic descriptor for an unknown water-dwelling creature.

Do the words “hippo” and “potamus” have separate meanings?

No, there are no meanings for “hippo” or “potamus” alone. The complete word “hippopotamus” comes from the combined Greek roots “hippos” + “potamos” meaning “horse” + “river”.

How well does the name “hippopotamus” describe the animal?

Very well! The name captures key attributes like its physical horse-like features, its habitat in African rivers and wetlands, and its enormous size as a megaherbivore.

What other details about hippos does their name reveal?

The name highlights they are 1) semiaquatic, not fully aquatic like whales 2) herbivorous grazers, not carnivorous hunters 3) more closely related to cetaceans than land mammals.

Why don’t we call them river horses today?

While descriptive, “river horse” is too generic. “Hippopotamus” specifies the precise species and distinguishes it from other large water creatures. The Greek-derived name became the standardized scientific term.

In summary, “hippopotamus” is an apt name that neatly encapsulates key details about the anatomy, lifestyle, evolution, and biology of these iconic African megafauna. The name’s Greek etymology reveals how early observers used descriptive labels to characterize unfamiliar creatures they encountered. While hippos don’t closely resemble horses on land, the name sticks as an indicator of their semiaquatic existence as hefty herbivores in African rivers.

The Enduring Legacy of the Name “Hippopotamus”

The unusual name “hippopotamus” has several important linguistic and zoological legacies:

Reflects a history of mislabeling unfamiliar species

Early Greek colonists and explorers often used familiar descriptors to name exotic African wildlife. While inaccurate, it provides insight into early zoological taxonomy.

Highlights the practice of coining scientific names from Greek and Latin roots

“Hippopotamus” exemplifies the classical influence on scientific nomenclature – a tradition still used for labeling organisms today.

Describes a key African megafauna animal and its ecology

The name reveals salient details about hippos’ size, features, habitat, and biology – an important African freshwater species.

Illustrates the descriptive function of scientific names

Binomial nomenclature created by Carl Linnaeus labels species with a descriptive genus and species epithet, like Hippopotamus amphibius.

Reflects classification based on evolutionary relationships

Grouping hippos with cetaceans (whales) captures recent reclassification based on cladistics and genetic evidence.

So in essence, “hippopotamus” provides a fascinating window into the history of taxonomy, zoological nomenclature, and changing models of evolutionary relationships. The iconic name endures as a distinctive label for a beloved African megaherbivore.


In conclusion, the name “hippopotamus” has a meaningful origin, descriptive relevance, and enduring linguistic legacy. Its Greek roots translate as “river horse” – an apt summation of the animal’s physical attributes, semiaquatic habitat, enormous size, and ecological role in Africa. Although hippopotamuses aren’t closely related to either horses or pigs, the name stickily conveys their horse-like profile and river-dwelling nature.

“Hippopotamus” forms a specific scientific designation for the two species in the Hippopotamidae family, separate from early generic references to unknown river monsters. Examining the name provides insight into the history of taxonomy, zoological nomenclature, and changing evolutionary models. This peculiar yet fitting moniker will no doubt persist as an icon of both African wildlife and scientific classification.

So next time you encounter the word “hippopotamus”, remember there is a wealth of information encoded within it. The seemingly simple name captures multitudes about a beloved river giant.

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