The Great Penguin Name Debate: Pen Gwyn, Pin-Wing, or Pinguis

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By Scott A. Rowan

The Great Penguin Name Debate

Be forewarned that if you ask an ornithologist or penguin fan about the origin of the word “penguin” you just might be starting an argument.

There are three explanations for how the flightless birds we know to today as penguins grew to be called by that name.

  • Pen Gwyn

An extinct bird that lived in the British Isles, the great auk became extinct in 1840 after the final individuals were killed for their feathers. Flightless and clumsy on land, the black and white bird was much more agile in the water. But the animal’s inability to avoid humans on land doomed them to extinction. The auks were allegedly called “pen gwyn” which means “white head” in Welsh. A logbook from a voyage in 1577-80 claimed that sailors saw a “foule, which the Welsh men name Pengwin” in the waters between South America and Antarctica.

  • Pin-Wing

Reports from Newfoundland claim that in letters written as early as 1578 the term for the birds found in Southern Hemisphere that reminded sailors of great auks was “pin-wing” not pen gwyn.

  • Pinguis

Traditionalists opt for the non-auk-related story, claiming that the word “penguin” is a derivative of the Latin word “pinguis” which means fat. However, even this Latin-based theory goes back the auks as the scientific name for the great auk is Pinguinus impennis, which clearly took its Latin name from the Latin word pinguis.

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