From the the ‘white sea deer’ and ‘God’s dog’ to the 'rider of icebergs,’ the polar bear’s venerable place in northern culture is reflected in the names it’s been given.
Ursus maritimus – the polar bear. There’s a reason that these animals have become the poster children for climate change. For those of us who live outside of the Arctic Circle, these majestic creatures take on mythic proportions – and they are seriously threatened by diminishing sea ice. Without action on the environment, two-thirds of these gorgeous giants could be lost by 2050; by 2100 polar bears could become extinct.
Thankfully, there are a lot of people working on behalf of the beautiful bears. At Polar Bears International, for example, scientists and conservationists are working hard to conserve polar bears and the sea ice they depend on. The organization’s site is a treasure trove of trivia and facts, from which the following names were collected. Call me a word nerd, but we can learn a lot about animals from the language used by other cultures, especially cultures that share the same landscape with said animals.
Ursus maritimus is the polar bear’s scientific name, it means sea bear; it was coined by Commander C.J. Phipps in 1774, who was the first to describe the polar bear as a distinct species. Polar bears are so reliant on the ocean for food and habitat that they are the only bear species to be considered marine mammals, so the name makes perfect sense.
Later, when it was thought that the polar bear was actually its own genus, it was renamed Thalarctos from the Greek, thalasso, meaning sea, and arctos, meaning bear. In 1971, scientists went back with the bear's original scientific name, Ursus maritimus.
The Norse poets from medieval Scandinavia said polar bears had the strength of 12 men and the wit of 11. They referred to them with the following names White Sea Deer; The Seal's Dread; The Rider of Icebergs; The Whale's Bane; The Sailor of the Floe.
The Sami and Lapp refuse to call them “polar bear” in order to avoid offending them. Instead, they call them God's Dog or The Old Man in the Fur Cloak
Nanuk is used by the the Inuit, meaning Animal Worthy of Great Respect. Pihoqahiak is also used by the Inuit; it means The Ever-Wandering One.
Gyp or Orqoi – Grandfather or Stepfather – are used by the Ket of Siberia as a sign of respect.
The Russians go a bit more literal with beliy medved, meaning The White Bear.
Isbjorn, The Ice Bear, is what they say in Norway and Denmark. In Eastern Greenland, The Master of Helping Spirits in known as tornassuk.
So many poetic names! But regardless of what we call them, we owe it to the The Sailors of the Floe to make sure they have a place to live. For more information, visit Polar Bears International.