I have a new neighbor, and I’ve been electronically snooping on him or her.
I say “him or her” because the surveillance device is the PandaCam at the San Diego Zoo, which welcomed a bouncing baby panda a few weeks ago. And as the zoo’s Panda Research Station reports, it’ll be a while longer before we learn the sex.
Technically, the baby animal and its mother Bai Yun are giant pandas, a name that distinguishes them from relatives such as the red panda.
Why do we call it a panda? Like so many questions involving etymology, the answer isn’t black and white. There’s speculation that panda comes from a Nepalese word, but that’s about all we know.
The giant panda’s scientific name, though, makes perfect sense if you understand ancient Greek. It’s Ailuropoda melanoleuca, which translates as “black-and-white cat-foot.”
The ailuro- comes from the Greek word ailuros, meaning “cat.” If you need a fancy word for “cat-lover,” there’s always ailurophile. If you have ailurophobia, then you have an extreme fear of felines.
The -poda in Ailuropoda shares a linguistic root with lots of words involving feet, such as tripod (something with “three feet”), podiatrist (“foot doctor”), and antipodes, a word I discussed at some length in one of our mini-podcasts.
As for the second half of the panda’s name, the melano- comes from Greek melas, meaning “black,” the same root that gives us the words melanin, a dark skin pigment, and melancholy, literally “black bile,” once believed to cause dark moods.
The -leuca, or “white,” is related to the word for a white blood cell, leukocyte, an overabundance of which occurs in leukemia, literally “white blood.”
Why do we find pandas so cute? New York Times science writer Natalie Angier has explained that many of Ailuropoda melanoleuca‘s physical characteristics, such as a high forehead and black patches exaggerating the size of their eyes, remind us of the same features that make Homo sapiens babies so appealing. Something to remember next time you’re drawn to Cute Overload or Pandafix.
Angier also notes that the notion of cuteness is so pervasive in Japanese pop culture (think Hello Kitty and the anime series Panda-Z) that the Japanese have a term for it, kawaii — a word now found in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The little furball’s growing fast. Won’t be long before it lets loose with one of those giant giant panda sneezes.
Photo by fortherock. Used under a Creative Commons license.