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Why Do We Call Baby Deer Fawns?

If you've ever wondered about the names for baby animals ranging from swans to seals, read on for answers.

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“I love that ‘fawn,’ the word for deer or antelope young, comes from the Old English word for 'glad,'" says one expert.


Can’t resist that kitten video? Don’t even try.

A 2012 study showed that watching cute animals boosts our productivity. (Related: When We See Something Cute, Why Do We Want to Squeeze It?)

Sometimes animals’ names are as cute as they are, so this week we’re looking names of animal young. After all, even if you jump at the sight of Halloween spiders, you might still smile at spiderlings.

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These swan babies are properly known as cygnets.


Baby birds

Young eagles are eaglets, owls are owlets, and before they’re equally cute adults, puffins are called pufflings. (Related: Icelandic Kids Save Befuddled Puffins)

Such names aren’t scientific, like species-specific Latin names used to categorize animals, says Marc Devokaitis of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Common baby bird designations usually “come from hunting, domestication, or falconry,” he says.

Ornithologists often call young birds chicks, nestlings or fledglings, but “swans, geese and ducks, have a specific word,” he says—cygnets, goslings and ducklings, respectively.

“Emphasis on the first syllable,” notes Rebecca Bearman, assistant curator of Birds and Program Animals at the Zoo Atlanta says by email.

Adorable Raccoon Babies Make Human Friend Watch three adorable and playful baby raccoons befriend a man on a fishing trip.

Mammals and marsupials

“My favorite is a baby porcupine, called a “porcupette,” Bearman says, but don’t pet porcupettes. Their soft quills harden within hours of birth.

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Porcupettes are cute, but don't try to pet one.


“I love that ‘fawn,' the word for deer or antelope young, comes from the Old English word for 'glad,' and that we 'fawn over' things...like fawns,” says Don Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo.

That is the etymology of the verb—the noun for the creature comes from a different Middle English word, meaning “young of an animal.”

Young marsupials from koalas to kangaroos are joeys, and our ape and monkey kin—like us—are called infants when they’re young. (Related: Koala and Joey, Young Marsupials Stay Close to Mom)

We wouldn’t say this in front of its dad, but a baby elephant seal is a weaner.

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These elephant seal pups are also known as weaners.


Insects

There are 20,000 species of bees worldwide, and the smallest in North America is the tiny Perdita minima, .08 inches long.

People think they’re baby bees, but they’re not, says Ed Spevak, curator of invertebrates at the St. Louis Zoo.

“If you see a bee, it’s an adult,” Spevak says.

“Being a baby is not an aspect of size,” he says—it’s related to age, and bees develop into adulthood while in the hive. Until then, they’re called larvae, like baby butterflies, aka caterpillars, which also emerge in adulthood.

Baby bugs without a pupal stage, like leaf hoppers and praying mantises are prettily called nymphs, also a name for mythical spirits in nature. (Related: Troll-Haired Bug Found in Suriname)

Marine animals

Little eels are called elvers and young jellyfish go from larvae to polyp to ephyra. But some marine animals have an arguably scary name—at least for them.

“Why are baby fish called fry?” Moore wonders. “That's not a great word for the future of those fish, is it?”

Lucky for them, it’s an altogether different kettle of fish.

The term applies to a number of different fish species, from koi to lake whitefish to cichlids.

Brian Sidlauskas, associate professor and curator of fishes at Oregon State University says it’s an Old Norse word, “frío, freó, fraé meaning seed or offspring.”

At one time it was used to refer “to young of all kinds, including humans and bees as well as fishes.”

Indeed, “Young fry of treachery,” is an insult hurled at a character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

And Shakespeare? He was no small fry.