Honey-knowers, big wanderers, woofers and more


Hello and welcome to SoundCzech, our weekly exploration into all the strange and lovely things that people say in Czech. This week we get into animals with interesting names in Czech, beginning with bears. And “bears” - or little bears - is the name of this lullaby by Jaroslav Samson, “Méďové”.

The name of this children’s song refers to the small cute type of bear, “méďa”; the cuddly kind that your child takes to bed. The big, hair-raising one that disassembles people who fall into their enclosures under Czech castles is “medvěd”. Even the big, hair-raising bear doesn’t escape a certain cuteness though in Czech, when you look at its name. At first sight, the word “med-věd” means “honey-knower”, which is for sure a perfectly reasonable name. According to at least one etymology though, this is a confusion of the name “medujed”, or “honey-eater”. And according to yet another word history, the whole cutsy honey association is just a cover up: according to this theory, the distant ancestors of the Slavs knew the bear by another - doubtless more grisly - name altogether, but speaking the word, indeed, even thinking it, could summon the beast and get you eaten. Not an unimaginable idea, to be sure, since the bear is the biggest animal in Europe and the once thickly-wooded “Czech lands” used to be full of them.

But then, Czechs follow a habit of naming animals in an explanatory way, or translating their names verbatim from Latin. I doubt, for instance, that Czechs or anyone else named the Rhinoceros “nose-horn” (nosorožec in Czech) because they feared to speak its “real” name. The same goes for the camel, which Czech thinks of as a “big wanderer”, “velbloud” (“velký” meaning big and “bloudit”, to wander.) No wonder then that putting “vel”, big, and “ryba”, fish, together gives you a whale, or “Velryba”.

Anyway, what’s the “brum, brum” you hear them singing in the song? That would be the noise that the honey-knower-eater makes in Czech. Accordingly, in addition to all his other names, utterable and unutterable, the bear has the nickname “bručoun” in Czech, a big thing that growls, which you actually use more often in reference to anyone else who incessantly growls and complains as well. Czech children then use names for some animals based on what the animals say themselves. Our friend the dog for instance says “haf” in Czech, so children call him “hafan”. The same goes for peeping birds, especially hens, which children in the countryside especially call “pipi”. So much for the Czech animal kingdom for today and for this week’s SoundCzech. Na shledanou!