Given my fondness for natural history of the Australian native kind, it’s quite odd that this question didn’t surface sooner; If the Japanese translation of “kangaroo” is “カンガルー” (Kangarū), “emu” is “エミュ” (emyu) and “koala” is “コアラ” (koara), then why on Darwin‘s green Earth would “platypus” become “カモノハシ” (kamonohashi)?
We were going along so smoothly and phonetically until we suddenly arrived at the translation for what has often been referred to as the strangest animal in the world. It’s already weird. Why make it weirder?!
Before anyone gets carried away suggesting that monotremes are in their own little bubble and so it’s only fitting that they should have uniquely non-phonetic names in Nihongo, let me inform you that, in Japanese, “echidna” is “エキドナ” (ekidona) (Fun fact: a male echidna has a four-headed penis – so that’s something).
Of course, the truth to all the above is quite logical (including Mr Quad Phallus) (Fun fact #2; a baby monotreme is called a “puggle” ….awww!).
When British naturalists first received a pelt, sketch, and and descriptions of what would come to be known as the platypus from Australia in 1798, they figured it was a hoax – such is the shear freakiness of the shy creature. I mean, let’s be honest, they are pretty crazy – the bill of a duck, the tail of a beaver, the feet of an otter, and the males have a venomous spur on their hind legs making them one of a tiny handful of venomous mammals to exist.
Some point to the platypus (and their mates, the four species of echidna which together account for the entirety of the order monotremata) as evolutionary throwbacks and the link between mammals and reptiles (monotremes lay eggs), while others just call them “crazier than a fish with titties” (Yeah, I quoted R Kelly out of context – what of it?).
Anyway, when it came time to fit the platypus (very often referred to as the “duck-billed platypus”) in with natural history and assign it a scientific name, it was soon discovered that the genus “platypus” was already taken, and belonged to the ambrosia beetle. So, it was changed from Platypus anatinus (“flat-footed”, “duck-like”) to Ornithorhynchus anatinus (“bird snout”, “duck-like”) (Greek, Latin).
So, what does this have to do with the word “kamonashi”? Good question. Thanks for asking. The truth is, I don’t know for sure… but that doesn’t seem to stop anybody else on the internet.
We now know that the word “platypus” belongs to a beetle in an official sense and does not refer to the genus or family name of what we commonly refer to as a platypus. So perhaps the Chinese merely decided to go with 鴨嘴 “duckbill” and the Japanese reading in simpler katakana comes out as “カモノハシ” (kamonohashi)…??
I guess, when all is said and done, there are many animals which are not native to Japan and yet they end up with Japanese names – the duck-billed platypus being just one of them. I just found it curious that the rest of the Australian native gang got left out and that the weirdest one of the bunch, the platypus, was the one singled out for a name change.
If anybody has any further thoughts or authority on this (perhaps trivial) subject, please feel free to school me on it.
DISCLAIMER: I am fully aware that the Easter bunny delivers eggs once a year or so, but at no stage has it been proven to lay said eggs prior to delivery. As such, it should not be included when referring to monotremes. Many thanks.
While we’re talking about the term kamonohashi, on a far more serious and worthy note, please check out the awesome work of the Kamonohashi Project.