How did the White rhino get its name? Not how you think (even if you're very clever)


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.


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Back home in Hungary, the white rhino is called "wide-mouthed rhino" so either our local zoologists fell for the legend or there might be some sense in it. It migt make sense to do a comperative linguistic study of the name and if the "wide" version is more abundant then it might be the real thing.

By Abindarraez (not verified) on 14 Jan 2009 #permalink

Well, I suppose once one species was being called white (or black), an obvious choice of name for the other would be black (or, as the case may be, white)! "Flat-nosed" is, I take it, a direct translation of "simum".

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 14 Jan 2009 #permalink

The structuralist view of culture says that we tend to think, and to organize cultural elements, by binary oppositions. So, if you have two rhinoceros species, if one is named "white" for whatever reason, than the other one almost automatically becomes "black". This could be tested, by looking at the names of the beasts in different languages...

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 14 Jan 2009 #permalink

One brief comment on that last point (the binary opposition one): note that early explorers and naturalists did not necessarily think that there were just two African rhino species. The Keitloa, Sloan's rhinoceros or Blue (!) rhinoceros Rhinoceros keitloa - supposedly distinguished by great size and in having equal-length horns and a particularly long upper lip - was named in 1836 and Oswell's rhinoceros, aka the Quebaba or Kobaaba, R. oswelli (like simum but characterised by a long, forward-sloping anterior horn) in 1847. By 1869, the Bovili Rhinaster bicornis had also been recognised.

So, among 19th century colonial Europeans at least, African rhino taxonomy was confused and complex. By the way, some confusion does remain: as many as 16 black rhino subspecies were recognised in a 1965 study, and even Groves in 1967 found support for seven.

IIRC, the Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals lists the two species as the square-lipped and hook-lipped rhinoceros. It might be more accurate, but I guess it's so much easier to just stick to the good ol' white and black...

Which reminds me of how the Indian and Javan rhinos have also been called the greater Asian one-horned and lesser Asian one-horned respectively. I personally greatly prefer the old names, if only for the sake of simplicity.

(7) it was timid (like the white man), and not wild and fierce (like the black man)

Good Lord! Has someone actually seriously offered that as the explanation?


"Good Lord! Has someone actually seriously offered that as the explanation?"

Its worth to note that at the time society was extremely racist, so I'm not surprised

On 'explanation 7' (that White rhinos might be so named because they're more like white men than black men): this comes from Ian Player's 1972 The White Rhino Saga. Player wrote 'There are stories about the derivation of the name, ranging from the colour of the mud it wallowed in, to the theory that the old Boer hunters likened the white rhino to the white man because of its timid disposition as opposed to the black rhino which was wild and fierce, like the tribes of the interior' (p. 30). So, we can't actually pin down the originator of the 'explanation'.

Personality may indeed play a role in how the two species were named. Black denotes someone who is nasty, mean, and bad tempered. In contrast white would denote somebody who is calm, peaceable, and even tempered. Those who have worked with black and white rhinos have said this is the case. Even when they have adjusted to and accepted the humans who care for them black rhinos tend to remain short tempered, apt to go off with the slightest push. While white rhinos readily take to people and appear to actually like the folks who care for them. At the San Diego Wild Animal Park the resident whites will crowd around the trucks when they appear in the compound, and pester the people inside for attention as well as food.

Hi Brian, and thanks for that. Yes, on p. 12, Owen-Smith says that 'white' might indeed have originally been used for this species because of pale coloration. Owen-Smith based this on Barrow's 1801 publication [see above], and (so far as I can tell) on the hunt that Barrow was discussing (which occurred between 1796 and 1798 according to Owen-Smith). However, we don't know why Barrow - or the chief he was quoting - called these rhinos 'white'. Maybe it was for their coloration, but this is just a speculation and it would be nice to demonstrate it.

Perhaps the white rhino went around setting up colonies all the time while wearing monocles and safari hats. It would then have only seemed natural to everyone in Victorian Africa that these must be the white rhinoceros! Of course then the black rhinoceros was just the default antithesis of the other in a decision made by moral absolutists who could see no gray between the two species.

Or maybe not... ;)

Back home in Hungary, the white rhino is called "wide-mouthed rhino"

Same in German, and the black one is called "pointed-mouth rhino".

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

Maybe the unknown person who first coined the term was Mr. Black and it was actually Black's Rhino, and then "white" was just to differentiate it (not being Mr. B's?). Or perhaps the other way around. (Mr. White...This seems entirely reasonable when you've been playing Clue with your kids all through the recent holidays)

David Marjanović:

Same in German, and the black one is called "pointed-mouth rhino".

Swedish similarly has "blunt rhino" and "point rhino" (alongside "white rhino" and "black rhino", respectively), but as the species really do have differently shaped mouths, there doesn't seem to be any reason to assume either that there's really a Dutch/Afrikaans "weid" at bottom or that the people who came up with these names fell for the legend as Abindarraez suggests.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

Damn it, you've exploded a "fact" that I've been taught since childhood about the origin of the White Rhino's name! (I thought it was a quiz, and I was going to send you the "answer" to sound smart!) You may not have solved the mystery of the name's origin, but you've provided a cautionary tale about not believing everything you hear.

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

The difference in temperament is very noticeable in the field too. Whites are gregarious and tolerant of each other (and tourists) while blacks are short-tempered loners. I've seen blacks butting each other several times, but never whites (despite having seen vastly more whites than blacks).
The swedish names (wide/pointed) are descriptively corrext. However the most distinct field-character, which is useful even in bad light and/or at extreme range is that the white rhinoceros (being a grazer) hold its head low, close to the ground while the browsing black rhinoceros holds its head high (se pictures above). Unfortunately just about the only places you will need to separate these two species nowadays are Kruger and Etosha National Parks.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

Have white rhinos' ears migrated up, or have their orbits migrated down? I don't recall seeing ears and eyes so far apart in other creatures.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 15 Jan 2009 #permalink

This would make a great question on Qi - assuming the show carries on running long enouth to do a 'R' (for 'rhino') series, or even 'W' (for 'white').

Just a thought - how old would Stephen Fry be by the time they get to 'Z'?

The racist explanation for the names wouldn't surprise me at all, given the history of exploration and species classification, particularly in Africa.

It can still occasionally be found in general-audience wildlife books that melanistic forms of all mammals are "naturally" more savage, virile and untameable, while albinistic or leucistic forms are "naturally" more docile, less sexual and friendlier to humans. Er, observer bias, anyone?

(that leads to an OT but vaguely relevant question: would "black" and "white" humans actually count as melanistic and leucistic, respectively? or are those terms only used for colour morphs with single-dominant-gene inheritance?)

Anyway... there is a lot of racism and imperialism in zoology. (Has Darren ever covered the whole de Loys/Montandon business? Fake cryptid photos, equally fake lost civilisations and utterly bonkers (but at the time actually fairly widely believed in) "theory" of Homo sapiens having evolved independently from different ape species in every inhabited continent...)

Hi Shiva.

Has Darren ever covered the whole de Loys/Montandon business?

Not yet, but I definitely will - a whole book was published on the hoax last year, and I need to see that first. Otherwise, among the latest publications on the subject are Coleman (1996), Coleman & Raynal (1996) and Shuker (1998). The school of thought promoting independent origins of the different human races was called hologenism or polygenism.

Refs - -

Coleman, L. 1996. Debunking a racist hoax. Fortean Times 90, 42.

- . & Raynal, M. 1996. De Loys' photograph: a short tale of apes in green hell, spider monkeys, and Ameranthropoides loysi as tools of racism. The Anomalist 4 (Autumn), 84-93.

Shuker, K. P. N. 1998. Another missing photo? Fortean Times 107, 48.

Otherwise, among the latest publications on the subject are Coleman (1996), Coleman & Raynal (1996) and Shuker (1998).

For those who read Spanish, there is also

Viloria, A.L., Urbani, F. & Urbani, B. 1998. Francois de Loys (1892-1935) y un hallazgo desdenado: la historia de una controversia antropologica. Interciencia 23, 94-100.

Just to add to the Hungarian, German and Swedish names, and perhaps slightly more interesting as the language is the base for this folk-etymology, in Dutch the current names (besides the black/white ones) are 'breedlip neushoorn' and 'puntlip neushoorn' ('wide lip' and 'point(ed) lip' respectively).

By Kilian Hekhuis (not verified) on 16 Jan 2009 #permalink

Maybe the unknown person who first coined the term was Mr. Black and it was actually Black's Rhino, and then "white" was just to differentiate it (not being Mr. B's?).

That has happened with the Southern, Northern and Western Blot (tests for the presence of a certain piece of DNA, RNA or protein), all ultimately named after Mr. Southern. Google westernblotting to see how current that term is.

By David MarjanoviÄ, OM (not verified) on 16 Jan 2009 #permalink

Black rhino is often dark grey, because populations living in wet areas are often covered in dark mud which stays dark (wet) for long.

If some African explorer was familiar with these rhinos and had a mental image of rhino=covered in black mud, whites living on dry, open savanna would be more white indeed.

Just random idea.

"Homo sapiens having evolved independently from different ape species in every inhabited continent"

If you change "ape species" to "hominids" that is still a theory that some people defend. It's called "the multiregional model", and is actually considered somewhat more politically correct than normal evolution, dispersal and replacement.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 19 Jan 2009 #permalink

Not to "hominids", but to "Homo erectus populations" -- and, frankly, the multiregional hypothesis has gone the way of BAND.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 22 Jan 2009 #permalink

A late comment on something Hai-Ren said:

IIRC, the Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals lists the two species as the square-lipped and hook-lipped rhinoceros.

Jonathan Kingdon has also tried to introduce the name 'grass rhino' for Ceratotherium simum and 'browse rhino' for Diceros bicornis. Neither suggestion has really caught on, however...

Thoroughly off topic, but this seems as good a place as any to post Rhinocerotrivia.

There is a magazine-- title something like "Sebona"-- for South African expatriates in Australia. Issue at newstand had, as cover illustration, a portrait (i.e. view mostly of face and head) of Lulu, a baby (the magazine gave the helpfully precise information "only a few months old") Black Rhinoceros being hand-reared and bottle-fed (mother blind and unable to raise child) somewhere in the "home country."

Upper lip pointed: I was quite proud of myself that I was able to tell WHICH kind of African Rhinoceros our cover girl was before looking inside the magazine. On the "nose" (upper surface of rostrum, near front) there was a visible swelling: no horn visible, but skin covering what looked like a giant wart or pimple. No similar structure visible further back. So: if I had been ASKED to speculate about the ontogenesis of horns in two-horned Rhinoceros species, I would have GUESSED that the larger front horn becomes visible before the smaller second horn: but it's nice to have photographic confirmation.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 01 Feb 2009 #permalink

The issue with the cover girl is "Issue 10": I couldn't find a date, but the "Merry Christmas" on the editor's page makes me think it probably appeared late in 2008.
There may a bit more about Lulu inside, but it didn't look like enough to make this rhinocerophile want to buy it.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 02 Feb 2009 #permalink

around blacks never relax