ἱπποπόταμος fulfills at least some loanword criteria (on these criteria see Lubotsky (2001: 301)):

  1. Limited geographical distribution

    A more common synonym is not booked. The term is chiefly Greek. Other nile-horse are secondary.

  2. Phonological or morphonological irregularity

    Accepting that hippopotamus antedates hippos, the compound may be unremarkable, inasmuch as it is inflected and spelled regularly.

  3. Unusual phonology

    • That's the overarching question (eg. What is the evidence for *ḱw > *kʷː in Greek?).

    • Initial /x/ would be unusual in Attic, regular in Koine ‹χ›, also regular in Egyptian ‹ḫ› (which see below). /h/ is lost around the same time, uncertain for Ptolemaic Greek.

  4. Unusual word formation;

    • Surely the word should mean a horse who lives in a river rather than a river full of horses. [@Joonas Ilmavirta♦]
    • As you will see you are not the first person to notice its unusual formation. [@brianpck]

    Editorial rigour is sufficient to explain why ἵππος ὁ ποτάμιος appears in writing.

    • As for ποτᾰμός, whether related to path, πόντος or from πῑ́πτω, Frisk consternates: "The etymology is uncertain. - The word could also be Pre-Greek."
  5. Specific semantics, i.e. a word belongs to a semantic category which is particularly liable to borrowing;

    • The Hippo is limited to Africa. Animal names are liable to borrowing.

    • Besides, the resemblance of hippos to horses is negligible.

In sum, the term is begging the question on 3/5 criteria (3, 4, 5) with 6 individual problems. The method is difficult to apply here because the arguments are correlated. 1 is actually satisfied from the PIE perspective but naturally so limited in its distribution by the specific semantics (5). 2 makes a technical distinction over typology (3) but the morphosyntax (4) is atypical, so the distinction is fragile and may have been repaired by prudent authors. 5/5 would ask again.

Wiktionary has two Egyptian words for the hippo on offer.

In addition, the behemot is frequently interpreted as "hippopotamus" rather than "elephant", "beast", or else (cf. Ellicott, etc. pp.). The secondary sources are conflicting about whether a tentative Coptic cognate ox of water is definitely real or "Unattested in the Egyptian literature" (en.WT). Obscurum per obscurius. One might also ask, conversely, if the bible verse refered to wild horses.

So the question may be difficult, almost a matter of faith, but it is warranted by scientific rigor.

Is "hippopotamus" a loan?

Typologies of loanwords are various. For the sake of the argument, this is open to calquing, substitution, phono-semantic matching, etc.

Phono-semantic matching (PSM) is the incorporation of a word into one language from another, often creating a neologism, where the word's non-native quality is hidden by replacing it with phonetically and semantically similar words or roots from the adopting language.

Phono-semantic matching is distinct from calquing, which includes (semantic) translation but does not include phonetic matching.


Nevertheless, "the word loanword is a calque of the German noun Lehnwort" [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calque]. This shows a systematic bias against phono-semantic matching, which is more often called "coincidence" or "nonsense". So the pertinent question is:

Yay or neigh? How are ḫꜣb / hippopotamus coincidence—hasn't anyone so much as thought about this (in peer reviewed publication)?


A. Lubotsky (2001), The Indo-Iranian substratum. In: Carpelan C., Parpola A., Koskikallio P. (Ed.) Early Contacts between Uralic and Indo-European: Linguistic and Archaeological Considerations. Papers presented at an international symposium held at the Tvärminne Research Station of the University of Helsinki 8-10 January 1999.. Helsinki: Societé finno-ougrienne. 301-317.

H. Frisk (1954-1972) Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch / Hjalmar Frisk, Indogermanische Bibliothek : Reihe 2, Wörterbücher. Heidelberg: Winter.

R. S. P. Beekes (2010) Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series; 10, with the assistance of Lucien van Beek, Leiden, Boston: Brill.

  • Although the broader view in this question would technicly qualify for linguistics.SE, the core of the question concerns Greek and the usual contributors frequent either site, so I chose to post it here.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 17:48
  • This means that "Also regular in Egyptian ‹ḫ›" has to be taken with a pinch of hals. Although an answer would benefit from detailed information, I am not going to ask for an up to date introduction to Aegyptology on either stack and I don't expect that Wiktionary could deliver any time soon.
    – vectory
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 17:59

2 Answers 2


As a preliminary thing regarding point #3, there is nothing unusual about the phonology of ἱπποπόταμος if you take it to be exactly what it looks like, i.e. a compound of ἵππος and ποταμός; the weirdness of ἵππος itself is beside the point. The geographical distribution is also neither here nor there: hippos themselves have a limited geographic distribution.

While the construction ἱπποπόταμος rather than *ποτάμιππος is somewhat unusual in Greek—unusual enough to have been commented on quite early—it's not unusual enough to have merited a connection to Egyptian in its own right, and the only reason that one ever showed up in the literature is because someone wanted to manufacture support for a pet theory in Hebrew.

The word they were trying to account for was the word בְּהֵמוֹת‎ bəhēmōṯ, the Biblical beast Behemoth. On the face of it this is just a perfectly normal plural of בְּהֵמָה‎ bəhēmā 'beast, cattle'—specifically, a plural of excellence (sensu latu; there are grammarians who make finer distinctions in the various plurals Hebrew uses where English has singulars), as also seen in e.g. אֱלֹוהִים ʾĕlōhīm 'gods, God', the plural of אֱלוֹהַּ‎ ʾĕlōah 'god'.
The 17th-century theologian Samuel Bochart, famous producer of a slew of spurious etymologies, indefensibly equated the Behemoth with a hippopotamus in his Hierozoicon and declared, for no obvious reason, that בְּהֵמוֹת‎ wasn't the plural of a Hebrew word but the singular of an Egyptian one. On the grounds of this, Paul Ernst Jablonski, another theologian, cobbled together a Coptic word *ⲡⲉϩⲉⲙⲱⲩ or *ⲡⲉϩⲉⲙⲱⲩⲧ pehemôu(t), corresponding to Late Egyptian or Demotic pꜣ (definite article) +‎ jḥ ('ox, cattle') +‎ mw ('water'), based entirely on surface similarity to bəhēmōṯ. Neither the Coptic nor the Egyptian is actually attested, and the known Egyptian words for 'hippopotamus' are db and, as you noticed, ḫꜣb.

Obviously this is not a strong case, and to bolster it, someone at some point (I haven't been able to determine who; it's possible this was someone misinterpreting some account of Jablonski's claim rather than making one of their own) noticed that actually, ἱπποπόταμος kind of looks like ⲡⲉϩⲉⲙⲱⲩ if you squint very, very hard—clearly the Greek must be a loan from Egyptian as well! In this fantasy, the similarity of ἱπποπόταμος to ἵππος + ποταμός is either an incredible coincidence or a later convergence inspired by folk etymology, and this would then also explain the unusual order of the (apparent) components of the compound.
Apart from the fact that this requires an Egyptian word for which there is no evidence and which requires that a water ox be a hippopotamus and that a word with a definite article be loaned with that definite article still attached into two separate languages, the amount of remodelling required to get from Late Egyptian /pəʔəħeʔmaw/ (or similar) to Greek /hipːopotamos/ is... significant, and it's not clear where the phono-semantic matching you mentioned would even start.

And of course, we know where ἱπποπόταμος came from: as mentioned in the linked question, it's a post-Classical contraction of the earlier, widely attested ἵππος ποτάμιος 'riverly horse' (as an additional point in favour, L&S claim ἱπποποτάμις is also attested), and no trace of an Egyptian loan exists in the attested history of the word.

  • 2
    This is a fascinating answer, and one I would not have considered—the Egyptian and Greek words look so different I would have left it with a "no, there's no evidence of relationship".
    – Draconis
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 23:37
  • 4
    @vectory You would probably receive more pertinent answers—and, I would guess, fewer downvotes—if you treated language as a tool for communication instead of just vibes. I was aware of the supposed בְּהֵמוֹת‎/ἱπποπόταμος connection from elsewhere, so I assumed that was what you were asking about; I could not gather from your question that you were actually connecting ḫꜣb with ἵππ-. (But the point remains: we understand the etymology of ἱπποπόταμος, and ḫꜣb does not actually solve the superficial weirdness with the word order.)
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 0:28

Egyptian ḫꜣb is, according to [OLA 114] not attested before Grecko-Roman times. χ stands for in Ptolemaic Greek. These two premises are not supporting a chronology of borrowing into Ptolemaic Greek as ἱπποπόταμος, however.

This is the answer the question deserves (I know because I wrote the question).

Interestingly though, many more complicated scenarios of borrowing can be imagined to account for the superficial similarity of hippo, ḫꜣb and their respective synonyms. Hightend awareness of the theme is motivated by the importance of chivalry to the Greek heritage. The significant quirks of ἵππος are therefore not besides the point.

Egyptian phonology remains problematic for several reasons. E.g., the distinction between ẖ and ḫ is difficult to define, thus [Peust: 117]. The different developments are spurious but could be taken to imply that ḫꜣb came about as secondary form of db. Further sound changes might also imply that ἵππος and ssm "horse" must have been recognizably related such that ἵππος (ποτάμιος) would appear as reasonable rendition of both ssm and db. Because, twice in the history of Egyptian we can observe palatalizations of velar fricatives [Peust: 115]. Corrolary, ship (of the desert) as epitheton of the camel must be based on another folk etymology.

  • [OLA 114] Lexikon der ägyptischen Götter und Götterbezeichnungen, Band 5: Ḥ – ḫ (= Orientalia Lovaniensia analecta. Bd. 114). Peeters, Leuven 2002, ISBN 90-429-1150-6.

  • [Peust] Egyptian phonology: an introduction to the phonology of a dead language. Göttingen, 1999. https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/peust1999

  • 1
    How would ssm be perceived as having anything to do with ἵππος? Your explanation is that velar fricatives get palatalized in the history of Egyptian, and then you cite two words which don't contain any velar fricatives or palatalized sounds.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 19:04
  • @Draconis: My intention wasn't to summarize Peust, but see p. 82 following Schenkel d developed into ʕ and p. 116 cp. desert vs. sahara where s compares to h from a pharyngeal fricative. Yes, I know some of these words.
    – vectory
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 19:31
  • 1
    "χ stands for ḫ in Ptolemaic Greek." That's certainly not true. There's even some evidence that the spirantisation of the aspirated stops happened especially late in Egypt; there's a Demotic text from the 2nd century CE that uses φ/θ/χ to represent sequences of stops + h, and that's also what the Coptic alphabet's ⲫ/ⲑ/ⲭ represent.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 19:37
  • @Cairnarvon I thought that's the least controversial part, cf. Egyptian Language in Greek sources, ed. Clarysse, Blasco Torres, specifically pg. 45, 163, 175, e.g. Χεντσανισ ~ ḫmt-sn. Maybe I am simply mistaken about "Ptolemaic".
    – vectory
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 20:36
  • 1
    Oh, you mean that Egyptian becomes χ when borrowed into Greek and not that Greek χ sounds like (i.e. is already /χ/ or /x/ or whatever at this stage); I don't disagree in that case. This is what I mean when I say you garner downvotes at least as much for the confusing way in which you choose to express yourself as for what you actually mean to say, though.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Jun 3, 2023 at 20:58

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