15 Names From Around the World for Polar Bears

From the the ‘white sea deer’ and ‘God’s dog’ to the 'rider of icebergs,’ the polar bear goes by many names.

Two polar bears standing in the snow next to water

Christopher Michel / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Ursus maritimus—the polar bear. There’s a reason that these animals have become the poster children for climate change. For many of us, 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.

Taking Action

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 diligently 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. We can learn a lot about animals from the language used by other cultures, especially cultures that share the same landscape with said animals.

So Many Names

Polar bear swimming underwater
sergei gladyshev / Getty Images

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 scientifically 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 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 to 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 by 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 bears” 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 Inuit, meaning Animal Worthy of Great Respect. Pihoqahiak is also used by the Inuit; it means The Ever-Wandering One.

Gyp or OrqoiGrandfather or Stepfather—are used by the Ket of Siberia as a sign of respect.

In Russian they go a bit more literal with beliy medved, meaning White Bear.

Isbjorn, The Ice Bear, is what they say in Norway and Denmark. In Eastern Greenland, The Master of Helping Spirits is known as tornassuk.

So many poetic names! But regardless of what we call them, we owe it to The Sailors of the Floe to make sure they have a place to live.