Most people who know stuff about animals ‘know’ that the White rhino Ceratotherium simum owes its vernacular name – not to its colour – but to its wide, flattened lips. After all, the ‘White’ rhino is not really any whiter than any other rhino. So, the ‘white’ must – so everyone has been saying – be a corruption of ‘wijde’, the Dutch for ‘wide’. That way, the rhino’s name would have started out as Dutch for ‘wide-lipped rhino’, and that makes sense, right? As it happens, and as rhino expert Kees Rookmaaker of the IUCN’s Rhino Resource Center argued in 2003, this explanation just doesn’t work…
It probably isn’t widely known that the White rhino was only ‘discovered’ in 1812, at which time William John Burchell (1781-1863) shot two near Kuruman, South Africa. He mentioned the new species in print in 1817 and named it Rhinoceros simus, with no use of a common name. The names ‘Burchell’s rhinoceros’ and ‘Flat-nosed rhinoceros’ seem to be the first common names used for it (in 1827 and 1836 respectively). However, a creature termed ‘the white rhinoceros’ had been referred to by John Barrow in 1801. Describing rhinos hunted in 1798 in Northern Cape Province, Barrow reported that a local chief had called the rhinos here ‘white’ [image above from wikipedia].
A rhino shot by a hunting party in 1801 was also said to be ‘white’, and thus to be different from a second rhino shot on the same trip. Petrus Borcherds, who discussed this ‘white’ animal in an 1802 letter to his father, expressed surprise that the term ‘white’ was being used for an animal that was, in fact, ashy grey. Field sketches made of both rhinos show without doubt that they were both Black rhinos Diceros bicornis (Rookmaaker 1998, 2003). Despite this confusion, by the 1830s C. simum and D. bicornis were, it seems, being consistently referred to as the ‘white’ and ‘black’ rhinos [in composite below, White rhino is above and Black rhino below. In case you're wondering, they really cannot be said to be different in colour. Images from wikipedia].
We therefore have no indication from early references why the White rhino is so named. As a consequence, people have speculated wildly on how this name came to be. Rookmaaker (2003) discussed the ten proposals made by previous authors. These putative explanations – some of which are plainly erroneous or represent extreme examples of special pleading – propose variously that C. simum might be named the ‘White rhinoceros’ because (1) it really is paler than D. bicornis, (2) it’s characterised by ‘a comparative frequency of albinos’, (3) individuals had been seen that had whitish dried mud on their hides, (4) it sometimes stands in bright sunlight and hence looks shining white, (5) a particularly pale form lived in the extreme south-west of its range, (6) white egret droppings made it look white from a distance, (7) it was timid (like the white man), and not wild and fierce (like the black man), (8) sexual and/or age differences somehow accounted for occasional paleness, (9) its horns are white, and (10) it was originally the ‘widg’ or ‘wijde’ rhinoceros, these words supposedly being Dutch for wide.
The last proposal is of course the one that has become the most widely known in modern times. The history of this explanation is pretty interesting. C. R. S. Pitman originally suggested that the ‘white’ in ‘White rhinoceros’ might be ‘a corruption of the Dutch word expressing ‘bright’ or ‘shining’ in the vernacular, referring to the smoother hide’ (Rookmaaker 2003, p. 91). He later learnt that there was no such word, so he now proposed that it was more likely ‘a corruption of the Dutch word widg meaning great’ (Rookmaaker 2003, p. 91). By 1934, G. C. Shortridge had pointed out that a Dutch word ‘widg’ does not exist. Pitman’s proposals now became forgotten.
However, during the 1950s a very Pitman-esque explanation was put forward. This time round, the proposal was that ‘white derived from confusion with the Dutch wijde, meaning wide‘ (Rookmaaker 2003, p. 91). Old spellings of wijde might have included weit, weid, wyd or wyt. So – does this ‘corruption’ idea ring true? [image above courtesy Tina Whitlock].
In order that ‘White rhinoceros’ might evolve from a term that used the Dutch wijde (or any of its variants), Rookmaaker argued that wijde – or one of its variants – should, somewhere, have been used in association with C. simum. In other words, there must be some prior historical use of the term ‘wijde’ in connection with this species. And, to cut a long story short, there is no such association. Rookmaaker concluded that ‘It is, therefore, impossible that white in white rhinoceros is a corruption of wijd or any other Dutch or Afrikaans word of the 19th century’ (Rookmaaker 2003, p. 92). I find this compelling and agree that we should reject the ‘corruption’ hypothesis for the time being.
So how did C. simum get its common name? Rookmaaker suggested that the ‘white’ in White rhinoceros might have emerged from an original African dialect, but a lot of research would be needed to see if that were so. For now, we just don’t know. How bloody annoying [adjacent image courtesy Tina Whitlock].
Finally, apologies to Kees Rookmaaker for utilising his work so heavily: if you need the full story, you should make an effort to get hold of the paper concerned (Rookmaaker 2003. See also Rookmaaker 2005). To my knowledge, a discussion of the information provided therein has not previously been recounted on the internet.
By the way – how did the Black rhino get its name?
For previous Tet Zoo musings on the Rhinocerotidae see War rhinos, the Elasmotherium photo, the Rhino May Day post, and Chinese black rhinos and deinotheres. And remember to visit the awesome Rhino Resource Center.
Refs – –
Rookmaaker, L. C. 2003. Why the name of the white rhinoceros is not appropriate. Pachyderm 34, 88-93.
– . 2005. Review of the European perception of the African rhinoceros. Journal of Zoology 265, 365-376.