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How The Penguin Got Its Name

Updated on October 11, 2013

Gentoo Penguin


Why are Penguins called Penguins?

There are several schools of thought to the origins of the name Penguin. The most popular, and the one to which we must give most credit is that the name comes from the Welsh, Cornish and Breton languages where “pen gwyn” literally translates as “white head” or rather "head white".

Pen means 'head'

Gwyn means 'white'

The first 'Penguin' was the Great Auk, a large, now extinct, flightless seabird from the colder waters of the Northern Hemisphere.

Some authorities suggest that the name Penguin comes from the Latin pinguis which means fat.

Others say it has its roots in 'Pin Wing' alluding to the birds inability to fly. To pinion a bird means to surgically prevent it from flying.

Some even argue that the 'White Head' supposition is incorrect arguing that neither the Penguin nor the Great Auk (the first penguin) have or had white heads. This is not true, they do.

The French call the Great Auk the Pinguoin. This could easily and logically been borrowed from Breton. The Germans say Pinguin and the Spanish Pinguino. The French word for the actual Penguin is 'Manchot'.

Welsh Bonnet

This is a typical Welsh Bonnet. A black hat trimmed with white exposed lace.
This is a typical Welsh Bonnet. A black hat trimmed with white exposed lace.

Earliest Reference to Penguins

Probably the earliest English language reference to the true Penguin is from the 1577 logbook of the ‘Golden Hind’, an English Galleon which sailed around the world. Here it is recorded when they passed around the Magellan Straights at the tip of South America they saw “foule, which the Welsh men name Pengwin”.

Gentoo the first Penguin Penguin

I have no doubt in my mind that the birds they saw from the deck of the Golden Hind were Gentoo Penguins Pygoscelis papua. Few seamen had ever ventured so far in the Southern Hemisphere but many had travelled in the North. Here they were familiar with the Great Auk, a large flightless sea bird to which they gave the common name ‘Pen Gwyn’ and had been doing since at least the 16th Century. Both the Great Auk and the Gentoo Penguin have white or partially white heads. Other Penguins do not. So it is an easy enough mistake, for a common sailor to make.

Practically any modern zoo keeper can tell you today that any spotted or striped big cat will be described by some visitors as a tiger, leopard or cheetah whereas it can only be one or the other. Mis-identifying a bird hundreds of years ago is a lot more acceptable when there were no photographs or ID guides and very few paintings or drawings.

Great Auk

Carolus Linnaeus

In 1577 neither The Penguin nor the Great Auk had been scientifically described. It was not till the 18th Century that Carolus Linnaeus described the Great Auk in is Systema Naturae, in which it was it was given the scientific name Alca impennis. It was not till 1791 that the Auk was moved to its own genus Pinguinus. By this time Penguins had been called Penguins for over 200 years so there is no way that the Penguin took its name from the scientific name for the Great Auk. It took its name from the common name which was Pen Gwyn.....White Head.


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  • Peter Dickinson profile image

    Peter Dickinson 4 years ago from South East Asia

    Thank you FlourishAnyway.

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

    Very interesting information on such a beautiful animal.

  • Peter Dickinson profile image

    Peter Dickinson 4 years ago from South East Asia

    Thanks bdegiulio. I am working with them every day. A journey so far south does not appeal but I can understand that it may do to many.

  • bdegiulio profile image

    Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

    Very interesting Peter. I have always been fascinated by Penguins. I would love to see the large colonies in the southern hemisphere someday.

  • prasetio30 profile image

    prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

    Nice information. I love penguin. Actually, I had never heard about the penguin got its name. Thanks for sharing with us. Good job and voted up :-)