Understanding the derivation of the word "panda" is not a black-and-white issue. The first appearance of the giant panda in literature occurred more than 3,000 years ago in The Book of History and The Book of Songs (the earliest collection of Chinese poetry), which both referred to the creature as pi and pixiu. The animal then popped up in Er Ya, the first Chinese dictionary (221207 BCE); The Classics of Seas and Mountains, a famous geography book (770256 BCE); and The Annotated Readings of the Book of Songs (475221 BCE). These books gave the panda three new names—mo, zhi yi, and bai hu—and described the creature as a white fox, a white leopard, and similar to a tiger or a white bear.
As if the identity of this bamboo-eater wasnt confused enough, the giant panda in later literature also received the names of meng shi shou (beast of prey), bai bao (white leopard), shi tie shou (iron-eating beast), and zhu xiong (bamboo bear). To this day, the Chinese name for the giant panda is still under dispute. Is it a banded bear (huaxiong), a catlike bear (maoxiong), a bearlike cat (xiongmao), or a great bear-cat (daxiongmao)?
The academic community even had problems deciding on a name. Attempting to give the giant panda its first scientific name, Père Armand David placed the species in the bear genus, Ursus, and labeled the species Ursus melanoleucus in 1869. About a year later, Alphonse Milne-Edwards correctly placed the species in its own separate genus and christened the animal Ailuropoda melanoleuca, meaning "cat-footed, black-and-white animal." This Latin name has stuck.
Altogether, the creature has received nearly 20 different Chinese names, yet none resembles "panda." One of the few known candidates for the root of the word panda is pónya, possibly derived from a Nepali word referring to the ball of the foot--perhaps a keen observation of how this bear eats bamboo with an adapted wrist bone that functions as an opposable thumb and sixth digit. Other writers believe that "panda" came from wah, the Nepali name for the red panda (Ailurus fulgens), and originating from the childlike sound that this species sometimes makes. The ultimate answer, however, may remain as elusive as a wild giant panda in a forest of bamboo.
—Alex Hawes and Matthew Huy
ZooGoer 30(1) 2001. Copyright 2001 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.