[If you would answer this question as I would (“The tallest animal in The Jungle with an extremely long neck.), then take a look at how true scholars approach the same question. SB SM]
The giraffe is such an outlandish animal that many otherwise sensible people have thought that it must be a combination of several species.
From the concept of a giraffe being an amalgam of several animals jointly; compare Persian شترگاوپلنگ (šotorgâvpalang, “giraffe”, literally “camel-ox-leopard”) and Ancient Greek καμηλοπάρδαλῐς (kamēlopárdalis, “giraffe”).
- group of people, cluster of people, body of peopleزَرَافَاتٍ وَوُحْدَانًا ― zarāfātin wa-wuḥdānan ― jointly and severally; in groups and alone
The name “giraffe” has its earliest known origins in the Arabic word zarāfah (زرافة), perhaps borrowed from the animal’s Somali name geri. The Arab name is translated as “fast-walker”. In early Modern English the spellings jarraf and ziraph were used, probably directly from the Arabic, and in Middle English orafle and gyrfaunt, gerfaunt. The Italian form giraffa arose in the 1590s. The modern English form developed around 1600 from the French girafe.
“Camelopard” /kəˈmɛləˌpɑːrd/ is an archaic English name for the giraffe; it derives from the Ancient Greek καμηλοπάρδαλις (kamēlopárdalis), from κάμηλος (kámēlos), “camel“, and πάρδαλις (párdalis), “leopard“, referring to its camel-like shape and leopard-like colouration.
If we try to find the source of the Arabic word, we are led to the following:
Not to be put to Ge’ez ዘራት (zärat), ዛራት (zarat), Tigre ዝዖታ (zəʿota), Tigrinya ዝዖታ (zəʿota), Blin ድዖታ (dəʿṓtā), Saho ዞዖታ (zoʿṓtā), Amharic ጅራተ ቀጭን (ǧəratä ḳäč̣č̣ən, literally “thin-tail”), Somali geri, Saho ገረ (garā), Afar garaa, Xamtanga jeraa, all meaning “giraffe” and referring to its remarkable “tail”, Amharic ጅራት (ǧərat).
The languages in the latter paragraph belong to non-Arabic Semitic and mostly Cushitic or other Afro-Asiatic groups. Judging from the geographic range of the animal and the Afro-Asiatic language words for it, I hypothesize that the English (<Arabic) word ultimately comes from an Afro-Asiatic word referring referring to its long tail with a distinctive, dark tuft of hair extending from the end. The tail and its tuft, of course, are effective in swatting away bothersome insects. (The hairs of the tail were used by humans as flyswatters, bracelets, necklaces, and threads.) The fur of the giraffe is also instrumental in protecting it from unwanted pests:
The fur may give the animal chemical defense, as its parasite repellents give it a characteristic scent. At least 11 main aromatic chemicals are in the fur, although indole and 3-methylindole are responsible for most of the smell. Because males have a stronger odour than females, it may also have a sexual function.
Standard etymologies for English “giraffe”:
Online Etymology Dictionary
long-necked ruminant animal of Africa, 1590s, giraffa, from Italian giraffa, from Arabic zarafa, probably from an African language. Earlier Middle English spellings varied wildly, depending on the foreign source, and included jarraf, ziraph, and gerfauntz, some apparently directly from Arabic, the last reflecting some confusion with olifaunt “elephant.”
In Arabye, þei ben clept Gerfauntz; þat is a best pomelee or spotted .. but a lityll more high þan is a stede, But he hath the necke a xxti cubytes long. [Mandeville’s Travels, c. 1425]
The modern form of the English word is attested by c. 1600 and is via French girafe (13c.). Replaced earlier camelopard (from Latin camelopardalis), which was the basis form the name of the “giraffe” constellation Camelopardalis, among those added to the map 1590s by Flemish cartographer Petrus Plancius.
Oxford English Dictionary
Forms: α. 1500s gyraffa, 1500s–1800s giraffa. β. 1600s giraf(f)le, gyraff, jarraff, seraph, ziraph, 1600s–1700s giraff, 1500s– giraffe.
Etymology: Ultimately < Arabic zarāfah, whence also Italian giraffa , Spanish girafa , Portuguese girafa , French girafe ; earlier adoptions of the word are found in Old French as giras (plural), orafle and giraffle , in Middle English as gerfaunt n., orafle n.; also Old Spanish azorafa. The forms used by English writers have varied at different periods according to their immediate sources. The Italian form giraffa was common in the 16–17th cent., but some writers of 17th cent. use giraff, apparently following Gesner. The modern giraffe is from French, though the spelling in that language is now girafe. Jarraff and ziraph (17th cent.) are independent adoptions < Arabic or some other Middle Eastern language.
1. A ruminant quadruped found in Africa, remarkable for the length of its neck and legs, and for having its skin spotted like that of a panther; also called camelopard n.
1594 T. Blundeville Exercises v. ix. f. 259 This beast is called of the Arabians, Gyraffa.
1617 F. Moryson Itinerary i. iii. v. 263 Another beast newly brought out of Affricke..is called..Giraffa by the Italians.
1688 R. Holme Acad. Armory ii. 130/2 Beasts..Such as chew the Cud, and are not Horned, as Camelopard Giraffa.
1805 P. Beckford Familiar Lett. Italy I. xiv. 137 In the Piazza..was once seen a Giraffa alive, sent as a present to Lorenzo dei Medici..in 1487.
1822 tr. C. Malte-Brun Universal Geogr. I. xxi. 526 The Giraffa, or the camel leopard.
c1600 Sanderson in Purchas Pilgrims (1625) ii. 1619 The admirablest and fairest beast that euer I saw, was a Iarraff.
1603 R. Knolles Gen. Hist. Turkes 988 A liue Giraffle (which is a beast like a Cammell and a Panther).
1605 J. Sylvester tr. G. de S. Du Bartas Deuine Weekes & Wks. i. vi. 194 Th’ horned Hirable [1605 marg. alias, Girafle, 1608 marg. Alias, Gyraffa].
1607 E. Topsell Hist. Foure-footed Beastes 4 Their nourishment goeth more forward then backward, like the best horses, and the Arabian Seraph, which are higher before then behinde.
1625 S. Purchas Pilgrimes ii. 1381 There wee saw a Ziraph speckled white and higher than any beast I had euer seene.
1665 T. Herbert Some Years Trav. (new ed.) 205 In Gesner’s History of Quadrupeds the Gyraff is..mentioned.
1739 E. Browne Brief Acct. Trav. 289 There is likewise in this country the Giraff, an animal capable of striking with wonder the most incurious spectator.
1773 Gentleman’s Mag. 43 17 Description of the Giraffe, or Camelopardus.
1857 D. Livingstone Missionary Trav. S. Afr. iii. 56 The presence..of the giraffe..is always a certain indication of water being within a distance of seven or eight miles.
1892 Times (Weekly ed.) 25 Nov. 8/1 There my driver shot a fine giraffe-cow.
2. Astronomy. The constellation camelopard n. 2.
1836 Penny Cycl. VI. 191/2 Camelopardalus, the camelopard or giraffe, a constellation formed by Hevelius.
1868 W. Lockyer & J. N. Lockyer tr. A. Guillemin Heavens (ed. 3) 320.
3. Mining. (See quots.)
1881 Trans. Amer. Inst. Mining Engineers 1880–1 9 142 Giraffe, a car of peculiar construction to run on an incline.
a1884 E. H. Knight Pract. Dict. Mech. Suppl. 400/1 Giraffe, a form of cage or truck used on inclines in mines of the Pacific slope.
†4. A kind of upright spinet.
1876 in J. Stainer & W. A. Barrett Dict. Musical Terms
Compounds — Special combinations.
giraffe acacia n. South African name occasionally used for the camel-thorn tree.
1896 H. A. Bryden Tales S. Afr. 44 Groves of giraffe acacia (kameel doorn).
giraffe tree n. = giraffe acacia n.
1815 A. Plumptre tr. H. Lichtenstein Trav. S. Afr. II. xlix. 288 A tall and wide spreading giraffe tree, the acacia giraffæ of Wildenow.
In the early 15th century, the Chinese amusingly referred to the giraffe as a qílín 麒麟, a mythical beast whose name is often mistranslated in English as “unicorn”. Note that cervid semantophores are used for both syllables of the binom, the phonophoric components on the right being used strictly to represent the sounds of the syllables. An alternative orthography for this disyllabic word is 騏驎, where equine semantophores are used instead of cervid semantophores. In Japanese, qílín 麒麟 / 騏驎 is pronounced “kirin” and is used as the logo for the world-famous beer. See the first two items under “Selected readings” below. The second, “Of reindeer and Old Sinitic reconstructions” (12/23/18), gives extensive philological, phonological, semantic, zoological, mythical, and information about qílín / kirin 麒麟 / 騏驎.
Here is a famous early 15th century Chinese painting of a “qílín 麒麟”, in actuality a giraffe, as is obvious from the depiction:
Shen Du (沈度, 1357–1434) Note: In contrast to the other references, the Philadelphia Museum of Art considers this to be rather a later work by an unknown painter from the 16th century. – “Tribute Giraffe with Attendant“. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
On 20 September 1414, Bengali envoys presented a tribute giraffe in the name of King Saif Al-Din Hamzah Shah of Bengal (r. 1410–12) to the Yongle Emperor of Ming China (r. 1402–24). The Yongle Emperor commissioned Shen Du to paint this giraffe. This file depicts the original painting by Shen Du.
For an historical study of giraffes (and elephants) in the world of the Indian Ocean, see the new article by Tansen Sen cited below.
Chinese travellers in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean have left valuable records concerning giraffes. In his Yíngyá shènglǎn 瀛涯勝覽 (The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores), Mǎ Huān 馬歡 (ca. 1380-1460), translator and secretary of the great admiral Zhèng Hé (1371-1433 / 1435), has a chapter on Ādān guó 阿丹國 (Aden), in which he describes giraffes (calling them “qílín 麒麟”) thus:
Its front two legs are more than 9 feet tall, its back two legs are about 6 feet tall. Its head surmounts a neck that is 16 feet long. The skull rises in the front and dips downward in the back. People cannot ride it. There are two fleshy protuberances on its head beside the ears. It has a bovine tail and deerlike body; its hoofs have three toes. Its mouth is flat and laterally extended. It eats millet, beans, and wheat cakes.
N.B.: The Chinese “foot” of centuries ago was shorter than the current length.
The text also alludes to the Somali word giri / geri.
Another of Zheng He’s interpreters, Fèi Xìn 費信 (ca. 1385 / 1388-after 1436), also left a record of giraffes in the section on Zuǒfǎer guó 佐法兒國 (the kingdom of Z̧ufār [in Arabic]) of his Xīngchá shènglǎn 星槎勝覽 (The Overall Survey of the Starry Raft), scroll 4:
The land produces zǔláfǎ 祖剌法*, leopards, camels, ostriches, frankincense, and ambergris.
*VHM: Cf. Arabic zarāfah.زرافة
A variation of zǔláfǎ 祖剌法, cúlà 徂蠟, appeared in the Southern Song work, Zhū Fān Zhì 诸蕃志 (A Description of Barbarian Nations // Records of Foreign People // etc.; 13th c.) by the historian Zhào Rǔkuò / Zhào Rǔguā 趙汝适 (1170-1231) — in the chapter on Bìpáluō guó 弼琶囉國 (Berbera [burr-burr-AH; Somali: Barbara, Arabic: بربرة]).
There are also various other Ming sources recording the supposed Chinese name for “giraffe”, qílín 麒麟 (with its “foreign name” (fān míng 番名) of zǔláfǎ 祖剌法 as a tribute having been presented to Ming emperors.
Incidentally, Ma Huan’s travelogue also mentions durian as “a kind of stinky fruit” (yī děng chòu guǒ 一等臭果).
In Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), the giraffe is called “chángjǐnglù 長頸鹿” (lit., “long-necked deer”).
- “‘Beer is the most squeezed giraffe’” (7/17/22)
- “Of reindeer and Old Sinitic reconstructions” (12/23/18) — includes extensive, detailed discussion of xièzhì 獬豸 (“goat of justice”); 麒麟 / 騏驎
- “Reindeer talk” (12/24/13)
- “Reindeer lore ” (12/8/16) — includes 95 comments with words for reindeer in different languages, plus descriptions of customs and culture concerning reindeer
- “‘Mulan’ is a masculine, non-Sinitic name” (7/15/19)
- “Malaysian Multilingualism” (9/11/09)
- “Durian pizza” (10/18/19)
- “Explosion Cheese Durian Pie” (9/23/19)
- “China and Rome” (2/24/19)
- Tansen Sen, “Giraffes and Elephants: Circulation of Exotic Animals in the Longue Durée History of the Indian Ocean World“, Burkhard Schnepel and Julia Verne, ed., Cargoes in Motion: Materiality and Connectivity across the Indian Ocean (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2022), pp. 113-142.
- Ying-yai Sheng-lan, The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores (1433), by Ma Huan, translated by J.V.G. Mills, with foreword and preface, Hakluyt Society (London 1970; reprinted by the White Lotus Press, 1997).
- China and the Roman Orient: Researches into their Ancient and Medieval Relations as Represented in Early Chinese Records, by Friedrich Hirth (Author), Victor H. Mair (Introduction) (London: Bloomsbury, 2021).
[Thanks to Vito Acosta and Zihan Guo]