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The bear in Eurasian plant names: motivations and models


Ethnolinguistic studies are important for understanding an ethnic group’s ideas on the world, expressed in its language. Comparing corresponding aspects of such knowledge might help clarify problems of origin for certain concepts and words, e.g. whether they form common heritage, have an independent origin, are borrowings, or calques. The current study was conducted on the material in Slavonic, Baltic, Germanic, Romance, Finno-Ugrian, Turkic and Albanian languages. The bear was chosen as being a large, dangerous animal, important in traditional culture, whose name is widely reflected in folk plant names. The phytonyms for comparison were mostly obtained from dictionaries and other publications, and supplemented with data from databases, the co-authors’ field data, and archival sources (dialect and folklore materials). More than 1200 phytonym use records (combinations of a local name and a meaning) for 364 plant and fungal taxa were recorded to help find out the reasoning behind bear-nomination in various languages, as well as differences and similarities between the patterns among them. Among the most common taxa with bear-related phytonyms were Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (L.) Spreng., Heracleum sphondylium L., Acanthus mollis L., and Allium ursinum L., with Latin loan translation contributing a high proportion of the phytonyms. Some plants have many and various bear-related phytonyms, while others have only one or two bear names. Features like form and/or surface generated the richest pool of names, while such features as colour seemed to provoke rather few associations with bears. The unevenness of bear phytonyms in the chosen languages was not related to the size of the language nor the present occurence of the Brown Bear in the region. However, this may, at least to certain extent, be related to the amount of the historical ethnolinguistic research done on the selected languages.


Many plant names have an animal element as a part of them. Animal names in folk (and scientific) plant names are common in many languages in Europe, as well as outside Europe. The prefix bear- is very common in many languages in the Eurasian area, which reflects the bear’s importance in the folk tradition.

Phytonyms (that is plant names) with animal names as components have been discussed by many ethnobotanists, folklorists, and linguists. Already a pioneering plant name researcher T. Thiselton-Dyer [1] observed that bear was a common animal element in many plant names, giving bear’s foot, bear-berry, bear’s bilberry, bear’s-garlic, bears-breech, and bear’s-wort as examples. The word bear could denote the size, the coarseness, and frequently the worthlessness or spuriousness of the plant. H. Kreiter [2] gave an account of French vernacular names of plants derived from animal names. H. Marzell published a dissertation on animals in German plant names [3]. Croatian and general Slavonic material was analysed in works by N. Vajs [4] and S. Dubrovina [5], respectively. I. Hauenschield provided an important contribution with her studies on the use of animals in Turkic plant names [6]. She noted that the bear is an important animal in Turkish folklore and also has a very prominent place among Turkic plant names, generally connected with forest and mountain flora. Hungarian plant names were researched by Rácz [7], who considered dog’s, wolf’s, pig’s names among the most common ones among those with an animal element. Komi phytonyms were discussed by Rakin [8]. Most of these works analyse many plant names in detail, but somewhat selectively, and without statistics.

Specific animals were discussed in numerous articles. For example, the Dutch ethnobotanist T. van Asseldonk examined the use of ‘pig’ in plant names in French, German, Dutch, and Flemish [9]; T. B. Haber – on dogs and other canines in British and American English [10]. Some authors tried to find explanations of naming in traditional culture [11]; such an approach is typical in ethnolinguistics. Still, most researchers limited themselves to comparing plants’ organs with these or those body parts of animals, as well as pointing out some of their features – that is, their properties and characteristics. So, van Asseldonk mentioned the toxicity of some ‘pig’-herbs and the fact that some of them are eaten by pigs [9]; Haber included worthless, inferior, harmful, and not cultivated plants to the list of ‘dog’ plants, adding those serving as dog’s medicine, curing dog bites, and beneficial to dogs [10]. In a work based on Slavonic plant name data, V. Kolosova [12] discerned sixteen motivations (plant features which were the reason behind the naming) for animal names, a plant’s shape, surface, colour, size, habitat, status, and a plant being animal’s food or medicine among them. N. Vajs in her article [4] attempted to set up correspondences between the appearance of plants and an animal body part forming the basis of nomination (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
figure 1

Correspondences between the appearance of plants and animal body parts based on nomination (adapted from [4])

More specifically plant names with a bear component were discussed in articles by Brodskij [13] on Finno-Permic and Balto-Fennic languages and by Kolosova [14] on Russian dialects. We should also mention Dahlstedt [15] who in more depth discussed many bear berry names in northern Scandinavia. He notes that bear- in names of berries in northern Scandinavia is probably pejorative, because it is often used to berries regarded as inedible. However, it can also refer to the colour, because unripe berries can be red or maroon.

There was often no direct relationship between the actual habitat of an animal species and the use of animal metaphors in local plant names. There were for instance names with ‘lion’, ‘monkey’ and ‘dragon’ in the Nordic languages, and ‘elephant’ and ‘lion’ in various Turkic plant names [6, 16, 17]. The Tudor naturalist Turner recorded bearefote (nowadays still called bear’s foot) in English already in 1538 for Helleborus [18]. No wild bears were present in the British Isles at that time. They were probably extinct already by 500 AD or somewhat later [19].

Bear-related plant names can be considered semantically transparent or in some cases semi-transparent in Berlin’s terms [20], yet we are talking about once traditional, but now highly literate societies. Therefore understanding the motivations of plant names is not easy. Plant names and the naming of plants subsume a great many aspects: synchronic, diachronic, structural, semantic/associative, systemic/variational, etymological, geographical, social, etc. There is also a question of the emotive/situational value of plant names and the handling of plant names in literary contexts. Many plant names reflected folklore motifs and mythological ideas. In addition, there were normative aspects in terms of diffusion and normalization of plant names. It is therefore not only a question of the supposed origin and motif of denomination (why was a plant X called Y?). Some names were for instance just translations of the Latin name, and especially the pre-Linnaean Latin names must be considered, cf. Turner’s bearefote [21].

Large charismatic animals have always attracted people’s interest, and therefore there exists a rich cultural history associated with such animals. Predators especially have exerted a special attraction in art, folklore, myths, rituals, and other cultural expressions. This applies in particular to the bear (along with wolf) that has played a central role in people’s perceptions across Eurasia. Bear worship has for instance been common all over the circumpolar area [2226]. Some peoples even regarded bears as their ancestors [27, 28]. Vice versa, in Slavonic etiological legends bear is a human transformed into a beast as a punishment for some sin. South Slavs celebrated special “bear days” [29].

Bears are found all over the northern hemisphere [30]. Very much was written about the bear in folk perception and as a prey for hunters. Our relationship with bears seems eternal, ranging from prehistoric human relation to the cave bear right up to the bear’s place in today’s popular culture [31, 32]. Several ancient (Pliny the Elder, Claudius Aelianus), medieval (Hildegard of Bingen, Albertus Magnus, Bartholomew of England), and Renaissance authors (Olaus Magnus, Conrad Gessner) dealt with the bear in detail. The scholarly literature on the bear in human history is extensive and covers many aspects [27, 30, 3336].

Echoes of ancient ideas on some “equality” of humans and bears have been alive in ritual practices until recently. For instance, in Älvdalen, in the Swedish province Dalecarlia, a fiancée was called ‘she-bear’, and there are many expressions connected with the rituals before a wedding when the bear metaphor is used. Björn-grånka is the local term for a spruce tree, Picea abies (L.) H. Karst, which was set upright against the door of a farm where someone had the banns of marriage published. This was done to prevent ‘the bear’ from coming ‘out of hibernation’ [37]. In Russian wedding songs the bride is called мeдвeдицa ‘she-bear’ [38].

As a charismatic animal, hunted, revered, and feared, the bear also has many euphemisms in Eurasia [29, 3941]. Strictly speaking, bear/björn/bjørn/Bär in the Germanic languages literally mean “the brown one”, is an old euphemism [41]; Russian literary and common name for bear is also a euphemism literally meaning “honey eater”; all of them are used instead of old Indo-European name *ŗkso- (kept in Gr. άρκτoς and Lat. ursus), that has been tabooed for many centuries [42]. The Hungarian language uses a Slavonic borrowing medve for the same reason.

The objectives of the research were to answer the following questions:

  1. a.

    which plants were associated with the bear in folk plant nomenclatures?

  2. b.

    why certain plants were considered ‘bear plants’ (i.e. eventual links to local perceptions)?

  3. c.

    is there a common perception of the same taxon over larger areas?

  4. d.

    what are differences and similarities of the patterns among different languages?

  5. e.

    do plant names with ‘bear’ component always link to the animal ‘bear’?

  6. f.

    which word-formative models are used for creating ‘bear’-names?

Methods and sources

Within this work we concentrated on plant names related to the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos Linnaeus, 1758) historically or still today co-habitating in the areas of the distribution of selected language groups (Fig. 2). We give an overview of using the bear as a prefix in Eurasian folk plant names (sometimes it is not a prefix but just a word meaning ‘bear’ or ‘little bear’ used as a metaphorical name). The names belonging to the official nomenclature were not analysed, unless they coincided with the folk ones.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Language groups reviewed in this publication and present geographic distribution of Brown Bear (Ursus arctos). Red – distribution of Brown Bear. Circles indicate the regions inhabited by the speakers of the language group very roughly. Base map (species distribution map) is created by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and distributed by Wikimedia according to Attribution-Share Alike Creative Commons License (

Only species names were considered. The cases of bear-nomination for individual natural objects, as, i.e., It. faggio dell’orso ‘bear’s beech’ for one famous big tree at Mt. Tranquillo, near Pescasseroli village, are not analysed.

Plant names containing the root bear- were analysed in the spoken dialects of several Eurasian languages: Slavonic (Belarusian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Macedonian, Polish, Russian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Sorbian, and Ukrainian), Germanic (English, German, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish), Romance (French, Italian, Latin, Sardinian, Friulian), Finno-Ugrian (Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Izhorian, Livonian, Saami, and Votic), Turkic languages (Bashkir, Chuvash, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Tatar, Turkish, Uyghur, and Uzbek) and other languages (Albanian, Lithuanian). The authors also considered the cases when the plant was unidentified, but the citation from respondent explained the using of a bear-name. The inner form (literal translation) of local names is given in square brackets.

The published dictionaries, ethnolinguistic literature, folkloric and ethnographic references based on primary literature and original field investigations were considered. Field materials from Abruzzo [Cianfaglione], Transylvania [Frendl and Papp], Estonia [Kalle and Sõukand], Transylvania [Molnár, Babai], and the Alps [Pieroni] are published for the first time. Data was extracted from the sources and entered in an Excel spreadsheet. Nomenclature followed The Plant List database [43] for plants and Index Fungorum [44] for fungi. The dataset supporting the conclusions of this article was included within the article as its (Table 1). The dataset has the following structure: valid nomenclature taxon, original source taxon identification, local plant name and its literal translation into English, language and geographical area of fixation of the plant name, motivation, and the source of the information. The column containing motivations was formed on the basis of the material extracted from the sources.

Table 1 ᅟ

Are all bears in plant names really bears?

There is a particular problem in the interpretation of the bear plant names. The bramble (Rubus subg. Rubus) was called björnbär [“bear berry”] in Swedish. This plant name was recorded already in 1643 in Sweden. But the reasoning behind this name is not easily clarified. There is nothing bear-like about it, and bears never appear in the area where it grows along the southern Swedish coasts. One possible explanation is that another folk name is brumbär, and the first part brum has maybe been associated with the animal’s name (although brum in this case actually means ‘leaf’, cf. English bramble, German Brombeere, etc.). Although most contemporary people connect björnbär with bears, it is not etymologically derived from historical roots connected to the animal bear [17]. On the other hand, the connections of Rubus spp. with bears in Belorussian, Ukrainian, Czech, Old-Polish, German, Italian, Estonian, and Votic cannot be explained by folk etymology.

Another example is the English name bearbind for Clematis vitalba L., Convolvulus arvensis L., and Polygonum convolvulus L., where the ‘bear’ element historically comes from Old English beow ‘barley’ rather than the Old English bera ‘bear’, and thus the whole name literally means the plant that binds barley [45, 46]. Similarly, it is bere (also ‘barley’) rather than bera, that lies behind bear-barley, a Northumberland name for Hordeum hexastichon or tetrastichon, which thus has nothing to do with bears, but literally means “barley-barley” [47].

Thiselton-Dyer [1] used bear’s-wort as an example, which, according to him, “is rather to be derived from its use in uterine complaints than from the animal”. The explanation makes a lot of sense as Eng. bear has (at least) two meanings, including ‘the animal bear’ and ‘to give birth’, which lent good material to folk etymologists. If there was an herb that helped giving birth or was good for gynecological disorders, it could get the name of bear’s-wort. The situation was the same with Germ. Bär ‘the animal bear’ and gebären ‘to give birth’.

Words from which the later words were derived are a critical issue also in other quasi bear plant names. The main similarities between Est. karu ‘bear’ and the adjective karune ‘hairy’ made contemporary speakers take them as being cognates. The words for ‘bear’ (North Estonian and standard Estonian karu, South Estonian kahr, and Finnish karhu) are related to each other. They are all connected with an ancient adjective (Est. kare, Fin. karhea ‘rough’), which may be a very old Indo-Iranian loan. The words for bear coincided phonetically with another word, karune ‘hairy’ (where -ne is a suffix of an adjective). This word is etymologically connected with the noun karv ‘hair’, which is an old Baltic loan in the Baltic-Finnish languages. Gooseberry is a good example here, which in some parts of Estonia was named karusmari (Est. mari ‘berry’, where the ‘s’ is a remnant of a genitive of the adjective suffix). It is of course wrong to understand this as “bear berry”; it is “hairy berry”. Another Estonian name is karuohakas (Anchusa officinalis L., Cirsium lanceolatum Scop.) which have nothing to do with bear either (karu, karune and karv [48]). Still, all the aforementioned and similar cases were included into Table 1 and considered during counting the number of phytonyms.

The bear as compound in Eurasian plant names

Folk and scientific plant names have entered into intricate relationships. So, in Russia the first medicinal books (containing descriptions of various plants features) were translated in the 16th century from German and Polish, and later from Latin. Since then, a complex of natural-science ideas (having antique, Byzantine, and West-European origins) and oral folklore-mythological ideas has existed, with folk herbal books somewhere between them [49]. When the interpreters could not find an appropriate Russian equivalent, they used calques (loan translations, literal translations) or simple transliterations. This method was used also in alphabetical books (Rus. aзбукoвники) – the first explanatory dictionaries [50]. In Europe, “the fathers of botany” had to widen the lists of the antique authors at the expense of the local plant names [51]. Linnaeus’s system influenced national nomenclatures as well. Besides, there were also foreign names borrowed by noble classes through the books, and by the peasantry – via everyday contacts with neighbouring peoples. Nowadays, strong influence is exerted by school education and media.

Children played an important role in naming of local plants. They have been very observant of details and some of these names survive for generations (cf. [52, 53]). One example is the number of names for the sporangium of the golden maiden hair (Polytrichum commune L.) in the Germanic languages. Animal prefixes were very common (birds, mammals) and the children have seen moss as a field with crop and therefore named it crow’s field, cuckoo’s cereals, fox rye, etc. [54]. There was also a bear name for the Polytrichum commune L. from the northern Dalecarlia in Sweden: björnblomma [“bear flower”] [22].

While analyzing the “bear names” of plants in various languages, one may notice that the same element of a name – ‘bear’ – was motivated by a whole number of various plant features. Not all of them were productive to the same extent; still, the influence of each feature may be found all over the territory we studied.

It was not always possible to indicate with certainty one specific feature for each plant nomination. As it is shown in Table 2, various authors explain the bear-names of the same plant by different motivations. Very often, a name was the result of influence of a whole number of features. Moreover, one plant taxa can have various bear-phytonyms motivated by different features, for example among the 18 plants most often attributed bear-related phytonyms, we can detect between two to six different motivations, differing within the languages (Table 2). In the sections below, the names were grouped according to the “leading” assumed feature, while the other(s) was/were mentioned if relevant.

Table 2 The twenty most listed taxa and those languages/territories having the most popular motivations for their bear-related phytonyms
Table 3 Frequency of different phytonyms related to bears for the most named taxa in the “bear-richest” languages

From the point of view of word-formative models, we may conclude that bear-names might be coined in the following ways: 1) “bear/she-bear” (transfer of meaning), 2) bear + a body part of the bear (e.g. [“bear’s paw”]), 3) bear + a part of the plant (e.g. [“bear berry”]), 4) bear + a plant name (e.g. [“bear willow”]), 5) bear + a plant group name (e.g. [“bear tree”]), 6) bear + an object name (e.g. [“bear spindle”]).

The plant taxa having most various phytonyms within regions/languages with rich representation of bear-related phytonyms were outlined in the Table 3. Although roughly one third of the motivations were hypothesized, the general proportion of the motivations is in large outlined in Fig. 3. The motivations below are listed based on the logical assumptions of the authors about the most popular motivations, yet the analysis proved such assumptions were incorrect.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Proportional division of motivations. Both motivations identified as the source and also hypothesized are counted here

Nomination by size

This nomination might be presumed to be the largest group, but in fact contributed only 3% of recorded or assumed motivations and some more in the combinations with other motivations. Bear names were given, as a rule, to large plants with high stalks and/or large leaves, other parts of unusually big size. Into this group such names might be included as Fin. karhunputk [“bear’s thistle”], Izh. karhuntruba [“bear’s pipe”] Angelica archangelica L. [55, 56]; Rus. Tobol. мeдвeжьe дepeвo [“bear’s tree”] Asparagus [57]; Est. karuein, karuhaina, karuoblik [“bear’s grass”, “bear’s sorrel”] Rumex crispus L. [58]. An unidentified broad-leaved meadow plant was called Rus. Perm. мeдвeжья лaпa [“bear’s paw”] [57]. Turk. name ayı ardıcı [“bear’s juniper”] was given to Juniperus drupacea having bigger cones than other species [59]. It seems that size was also important for Arbutus unedo L., as it is compared with grapes and strawberries, but the nominations could also be influenced by the surface of the fruit, as well as by using them as bear food.

Nomination by surface type

Another group which assumingly could be big due to hairy look of bear and many plants, in fact contributed only 7% of the motivations. Here a good example is found in the folk names of Lycopodium spp.: in Upper Sorbian, German, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Italian, and Hungarian dialects it was compared with bear’s paws, feet, legs, and hair (as well as more general words as ‘herb’ and ‘(club) moss’ in Estonian and German [45, 58, 6076];. Lycopodium was called björnmåssa [“bear moss”] in a Swedish source from 1694 [77], which is probably a translation from a German source.

Equisetum arvense in Hungarian dialects was called medveszakál(l)a [“bear’s beard”], medvefarka [“bear’s tail”], and medvebajusz [“bear’s moustache”] [78].

Nomination by form

In this section it is possible to find several subgroups, according to the form of various parts of the plants. This is probably the reason why this group contributes to highest number of both recorded and assumed motivations (17%). The names could be based on the appearance of:

  1. a)

    large leaves of roundish shape (rather often compared to bear paws): Rus. Kostrom. мeдвeжьи лaпы [“bear’s paws”], Bel. Smol., Gomel. мядзвeжaя лaпкa [“bear’s little paw”], Norw. bjønnblekker [“bear’s leaves”], Est. karukoll [“bear’s ogre”] Caltha palustris L. [5759, 80], Bulg. мeчa cтъпкa [“bear’s step”] Tussilago farfara L. [81], Eng. bear’s foot Alchemilla vulgaris L. [45].

  2. b)

    spherical organs of plants (e.g. inflorescences), sometimes with thorns and prickles; could be compared with bear’s head or ear: Kaz. ayïwbastiken [“bear’s head”] Cirsium sp. [6], Est. karuohakad, karused uhakad, karuuhak, karuohtjas, karuõhakas [“bear’s thistle”, “bear’s thorn”] Cirsium arvense (L.) Scop. [58], Norw. bjønnehatt [“bear’s hat”] Cirsium heterophyllum L. [80], Rus. Psk. мeдвeжник бoлoтный [“swamp bear-plant”] Cirsium oleraceum Scop. [57]. Estonian name karune ohak for Carlina vulgaris L. literally means “bear thistle” [58]. There was also a small group of names for Centaurea spp.: Est. karukellad [“bear’s bells”] [58] and Rus. мeдвeдник [“bear’s plant”], мeдвeжья лaпa [“bear’s paw”] [75], Turk. ayıkulaği [“bear’s ear”] Arctotis sp.; Aster amellus [6]. Names of mushrooms with untypical shape, for example, Liv. okš-šõrməz [“bear’s septum”] Gyromitra esculenta (Pers. ex Pers.) Fr. [81] could also be put here.

    This type of nomination still stays productive; it shows, for example, in Rus. Novosib. мeдвeжья лaпa [“bear’s paw”] for some species of cacti; at that, the phytonym has obviously been derived recently.

  3. c)

    Plants with small flowers pressed in bunches, looking fluffy (often compared with ears or paws): Turk. ayıkulaği [“bear’s ear”] Glycyrrhiza glabra, Tat. ayu bašï [“bear’s head”] Trifolium sp. [6], Rus. Psk. мeдвeжьe уxo [“bear’s ear”] Verbascum nigrum L. [57], Fin. karhunkukka [“bear’s flower”], karhunruoho [“bear’s grass”] Achillea millefolium L. [82].

As the reason for nomination was seldom indicated explicitly in sources, it seems sound to draw typological arguments. For example, a number of names for Antennaria dioica (L.) Gaertn. – Germ. Bärentatze, Bärenpratze, Cz. medvědí tlapičky, Sloven. medvedove tačice, Est. karukäpp, all literally meaning “bear’s paw(s)” [58, 65, 83, 84], − finds a typological parallel in Rus. кoшaчьи лaпки, Germ. Katzenpfoetle [“cat’s paws”]. This sub-group may also be enlarged by names for Clavaria spp., compared in German, Slovenian, Bulgarian, and Serbo-Croat dialects with bear’s paws, and in Slovenian also with bear’s mane [65, 84, 85].

Nomination by toxicity/inedibility for humans/lower status in comparison with cultural analogues

The toxicity along with lower status contribute in sum only 5% of records. Plants with poisonous or just inedible fruits often have the word ‘bear’ as the first element and the word ‘berry’ (or a name of some specific berry plant) as the second, as in Swedish, Norwegian, Bulgarian, Russian, Lithuanian, Estonian, and Finnish names for Paris quadrifolia L. [15, 55, 57, 58, 80, 82, 8688]. The same may be found in many other plants names: for instance, Crataegus spp. was compared with apples in Bulgarian, and pears in Slovenian and Italian [84, 86, 89, 90]; Paeonia spp. was compared with roses in Turkish [9194]; Ribes spp. was compared with grapes in Italian and Serbo-Croat [84, 90, 91], Corylus colurna L. – with hazelnut in Albanian [95], Lathyrus sylvestris and Vicia sepium L. was compared with peas, in Lithuanian [87, 96], Oxalis acetosella was compared with sorrel in Hungarian [97, 98] – in all these cases the abovementioned species have the ‘bear’ prefix. The scornful, negative character of nomination is confirmed by the fact that many of the plants analysed received other folk names with ‘dog’, ‘wolf’, ‘pig’, ‘snake’, etc. as the first component. To step beyond the scope of zoological code, the plants supposed to be unpleasant, harmful, or “not real” were also often named in ethnic terms, specific for each nominating language.

Nevertheless, as bear is taken as the dominating European animal, in Russian dialects (Novgorod, Tver, Vologda, Olonets) the bear’s name was used for nomination of Boletus edulis as the best mushroom, the mushroom par excellence [57]. The same can be said about Hungarian folk names for B. edulis and other Boletus spp. in Transylvania [99, 100], and others; see the Table 1, though there is no information on motivations for corresponding cases in Turkish.

Nomination by place

Perhaps here “bear nomination” was a particular, narrower case of “wild nomination”. The location in the wild is a “background feature” of the plants, growing far from the human dwelling, in the places where animals live, which serves as a basis for metaphorical alikening of a plant and an animal. Here it seems appropriate to consider a number of names for the fungus Lycoperdon spp. In this case, the ability to produce a cloud of spores caused a set of second components of phytonyms, connecting them to bathing, smoking, etc.: Germ. Bärenfurz [“bear’s fart”], Bulg. мeчкинь пуфeш [“bear’s puff”], Rus. Middle Ob мeдвeжий дым [“bear’s smoke”], мeдвeжий тaбaк [“bear’s tobacco”], Rus. Vlad. мeдвeжьи бaни [“bear’s baths”], Rus. Perm. мeдвeжьe куpeвo [“bear’s tobacco”] [65, 86, 101103]. It is noteworthy that the same fungus was known as Fr. vesse-de-loup [“wolf’s fart”], which is the literal translation from Greek. Here we see again, how a bear and a wolf, being similar in folk ideas, could be interchangeable also in folk plant nomenclature. Another example is Lychnis chalcedonica L. which has names not only Rus. Ob мeдвeжьe мылo [“bear’s soap”], but also Rus. Ob coбaчьe мылo, [“dogs’s soap”] [101], Rus. Samar. кукушкинo мылo [“cuckoo’s soap”] as well a number of other names [12]. Although this motivation can be perceived as the background in many more cases, especially in case of several possible motivations, it has explicitly contributed to only 2% all records.

Nomination by usage for food in bears

Bears are typically omnivorous animals, their diet includes succulent shoots and leaves, fruits, insects, and meat [104], although recent studies have shown that carnivory is positively correlated with latitude among omnivorous mammals [105]. Omnivority of the bear gave it in many cultures the attribute of medicine animal, knowing all the plants and foods in general. As bears were often believed to have supernatural powers (due to their size and long hibernation period) people observed with great attention bear’s way and the way they foraged. We can thus assume that a large proportion of bear names in plants referred to their diet. The literature on bear ecology gave us dozens of bear food plants, and some of them had bear-related names in some languages. The main example of such plants is hogweed (the genus Heracleum) reported as one of the main spring foods of the bear from many countries, e.g. the USA, China, Japan, and Poland, e.g. ([106109], Tomasz Kozica – pers. comm.). Also “bear’s garlic”, Allium ursinum, was reported as important bear food in Croatia [110]. There was also an evidence from Mr. Sándor Tímár (Eastern Carpathians) of bears eating Allium ursinum and A. victorialis (Hung. vadfokhagyma, wild garlic), though the plant was not named after bear in this area: “The bear does not eat anything during winter, he licks his paws, and licks so much that by spring they are white. And then he eats first from that plant (wild garlic), in order to clean his stomach from the “deposits”. He is such a clever animal. He searches for what he has to eat after the winter sleep”.Footnote 1 Bears eat a large diversity of wild fruits so it is not surprising that some of them got the names of bear berries, though it is probably impossible to say if it was because they were main fruits eaten by bears or rather those fruits which are less eaten by humans, left for the bears, like Arctostaphylos uva-ursi. Bears have also been observed using plants for self-medication, so some of the plants which are not typical bear food or do not resemble bears in any way may have acquired their names from incidents of humans observing a bear using this plant as medicine. This was the case with Ligusticum porter which was observed as being sought after by bears and was regarded as bear medicine by Native Americans [111].

It is possible to assume that some plants – their fruits, stalks or rhizomes – were eaten by bears, though dialect dictionaries seldom give explanations, and we do not always know the folk ideas behind this or that nomination. Sw. björnbär [“bear berries”] for Vaccinium myrtillus L. [15], Cz. medvědice [“bear’s plant”] for Rubus caesius L. [72], Rus. мeдвeжьи ягoды [“bear’s berries”] for Rubus idaeus L. [57] seem rather reliable. Arctostaphylos alpina (L.) Spreng was also known as “bear berries” in many languages, such as N.S. guovžžamuorji, Sw. björnbär and Norw. bjønnbær (recorded already in 1766 by Gunnerus [112]) [15].

However, not all scholars agreed that there was a necessary connection with the bear- prefix and the berries consumed by the animal. Many different kinds of berries were named björnbär locally in northern Scandinavia. Black shining fruit varieties of Vaccinium myrtillus L. and Empetrum hermaphroditum Hagerup were for instance known as björnbär “bear berries” in northern Sweden. But normal bluish-coloured fruits, although being eaten by bears, were not called “bear berries” (cf. [37]). However, in some areas the normal-coloured berries were also known as “bear berries”, and known to be eaten by bears as well. Swedish plant name scholar and linguist Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt [15], who studied the north-Scandinavian berry-names in particular, stressed that the naming motif sometimes could be pejorative, for instance for Paris quadrifolia and maybe, but not necessary, for Vaccinium oxycoccos. Dahlstedt concluded that it was not easy to find one explanation for why many different kinds of berries were known as “bear berries” in northern Scandinavia [15]. Why Rubus caesius was called karuu-marja “bear-berry” in Votic is not clear either [113].

Another example of a bear food plant is Cicerbita alpina (L.) Wallr., which was known as björnmat [“bear food”] in Dalecarlia, björngräs [“bear grass”] and björnkål [“bear cabbage”] in Lapland, as well as bjønnturt [“bear plant”] and bjønnmat [“bear food”] in Norway. The plant was well-known as appreciated by bears among the peasantry in northern Scandinavia [114]. The same may be assumed about It. pan d’ors(o) [“bear’s bread”] Sorbus aria L. [74, 115], and Hung. medvesaláta [“bear’s lettuce”] which was a name for some woodland fringe tall herbs (Cirsium erisithales, C. oleraceum, C. rivulare, Carduus personatus) in the Eastern Carpathians.

This motivation group contributed 7% to all records and the list of plants assumingly motivated by bear food contains 66 plant taxa, among which are the taxa with several possible motivations. Very limited list of taxa detected as bear food in [105], however, only partially overlap with our extended list, as obviously not all bear food was called related to bear (like for example Populus tremula L.). Yet for example Aegopodium podagraria L., which has unknown motivation, or Taraxacum spp., Tussilago farfara L. and Trifolium spp. assumingly motivated by the form in our sources, or Urtica dioica L. motivated by surface have been detected as bear food in [105], which can indicate possible earlier motivation that was later over interpreted.

Nomination by folklore motif or belief

This motivation group is not numerous (5%). Rus. Perm. мeдвeжий тaбaк [“bear’s tobacco”] Lycoperdon was based on the belief that “a bear, to exterminate fleas, rolls about the clearing dotted with puff-balls” [102].

Another case is presented by folk nominations of Polytrichum commune. It was called Rus. Orl. мeдвeдь [“bear”], Germ. Bärenmoos, Est. karusammal, Izh. karunsammõl, Sw. björnmossa (first recorded in 1638), Norw. bjørnemose, Liv. okš-šōmal, Vot. karasamma [“bear’s moss”], Lith. meškakūšis [“bear’s penis”] [11, 56, 65, 80, 81, 87, 113, 116].

Slavonic sources did not say anything about the reasons for naming, Finno-Ugrian researchers surmise form nomination type. Really, one could suppose that thick, densely growing small stalks were compared with bear fur (see Lycopodium spp. above). But there were several interpretations of this specific name on Nordic material, all of them as good as the others [17, 80] admitted it was not easy to interpret the name: it could be explained by the fact that the moss turned red-brown and could remind one of a bear skin, but more probable, he said, was the connection with the belief that the bears used it in their winter-home. Also the moss Rhacomitrium lanuginosum was, on the same reason, named “bear moss” in Norwegian [80].

(Partial) translation from Latin

A very important phenomenon mentioned in the beginning of the article is Latin loan translations (calques) in national phyto-taxonomies contributes 15% to all records. The most remarkable cases seem to be Arctostaphylos spp., especially Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (L.) Spreng.; its names (and over 80 of these have been recorded) have as their inner form “bear’s grapes” or “bear’s berries” in Albanian, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, English, Estonian, French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croat, Slovenian, Turkish, and Ukrainian.

Of course, there is no guarantee that some folk names might not appear independently of learned ones, as various second components are also possible; but the greater the number of semantically identical plant names we find all over Europe, the greater the chances that they are the result of borrowing, as seems to be the case with Allium ursinum, called “bear’s onion” or “bear’s garlic” in Italian, German, Lithuanian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Slovenian, Serbo-Croat, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Romanian, Albanian, Estonian, Turkish, Azeri, Bashkir, and Kirghiz. Böhling [117] discussed why Allium ursinum had been referred to as “bear’s onion” already by the ancient Greeks. He suggested that bear in the plant epithet referred to Ursa Major (Big Dipper), − the constellation which could be seen in northern skies (other Allium species occurred in southern Europe, while A. ursinum was one of the most northerly distributed species of onions). His hypothesis is not convincing. First of all, for typological reasons, there do not seem to be any plants named after stars in any of the Germanic or Slavonic languages; the abovementioned motivation by bear food or lower status seems much more logical.

William T. Stearn [118] analysed the means of coining the medieval Latin name branca ursina [“bear’s paw”] for Acanthus mollis –someone “noted a resemblance between a floral bract of Acanthus mollis and a bear’s clawed paw” – and then transferred it (first in France) to Heracleum sphondylium which “has large divided leaves somewhat like those of Acanthus mollis” [118, 119]. The name branc (branque, branche) ursine Acanthus mollis, evidently, provoked the French form patte d’ours [2].

It seems that the model turned out to be rather productive, as numerous names for both plants, mostly translated as “bear’s paw” (but also ‘foot’, ‘palm’, ‘claw’, ‘nail’, ‘finger’, etc.), are spread all over Europe – in Upper Sorbian, Slovak, Polish, Czech, Ruthenian (in Vojvodina), Serbian, Croat, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Russian, Romanian, French, Hungarian, English, German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, North Saami, Votic, Tatar, Chuvash, Azeri, and Bashkir [6, 16, 45, 6163, 65, 68, 84, 86, 87, 89, 113, 116, 120129]. The model might also concern other Heracleum species; a larger group was made by folk names for Heracleum sphondylium L., mostly in Northern Europe.

In these cases we may suggest that first corresponding phytonyms penetrated to Indo-European languages, and later – very likely, through their mediation – to Finno-Ugrian and Turkic ones.

A noteworthy unity of nominations was demonstrated by a number of names for Primula auricula L.: Germ. Bärenohr [65], S.-C. мeдвиђe уxo [84], Cz. medvědí ouško [60, 61], Eng. bear’s ears, bazier, ba(i)sier [45], Rus. мeдвeжьe ушкo [116], It. urie/orie d’ours, orecchio d’orso, recchietta d’urss [74], Fr. oreille d’ours [2], Ukr. medved’ače uxo [130], Bulg. мeчo уxo [86]. The semantically analogous Turkish name ayı kulağı referred to Primula auriculata, P. elatior subsp. pseudoelatior, P. longipes, P. veris subsp. columnae and P. veris subsp. macrocalyx [131]. All of them have the inner form “bear’s ear(s)” – thanks to loan translation from Latin. It had a pre-Linnaean name Auricula ursi (because of its leaves which seem to be very much shaped as bear ears), which has been translated into many languages, and rendered in the medicinal and botanical literature, for instance in Germ. Berenohrlein [132], Dan. bjørnsøre [133], Sw. björnöron [134, 135].

Several nomination types

As it was said above, there are often reasons to assume the existence of more than one basis for nomination, and this group constituted 22% of all motivations. Thus, Rus. Perm мeдвeжий гpиб [“bear’s mushroom”] Sarcodon imbricatus (L.) P/Karst. was explained by respondents reasoning from its bitter taste; the researcher preferred to mention the size of the mushroom (reaching 30 cm), as well as dark and velvety colouring of the cap [102]. But it also seems important to note that the species has greyish brittle teeth instead of gills on hymenophore which could cause comparison with bear’s head or ear in Bulgarian, Czech, and Belorussian [61, 79, 86]. We have already discussed the case of Heracleum species, combining language borrowing and motivation by shape; at the same time, the plants of Heracleum genus are used by bears for food. The names for Allium ursinum also seem to combine bear-food motivation and loan translation.

Motivation unknown

Folk nomination is sometimes so doubtful and dubious that the question of motivation may remain unsolved, as it is, for example, for Alb. bar i ariut [“bear grass”] Erica herbacea L. [136], and in many other cases. Unfortunately, dialect dictionaries, while recording plant names, seldom give the motivation. This was the case in 13% of all records.

Discussion and conclusions

The material presented gives wide opportunities for linguo-geographical and ethno-cultural observations and studies. Bear phytonyms were quite widespread in some countries/languages such as Estonian (140), German (125), Russian (122), Swedish (92) and rather rare in the others – Macedonian and Ruthenian (7), Albanian and Slovak (6), Danish (5), Bashkir (4), Chuvash (3), Livonian (2) (these numbers are not absolute, as it is not always easy to differentiate phonetical variants and different phytonyms). This fact can hardly be explained only by environment differences (like for example speakers of Estonian and Livonian inhabited the same ecological niche) nor to linguistic peculiarities (as for example there are bear-rich and bear-poor languages in all main language groups) and needs deeper cultural anthropological studies combined with folklore and ethnology. A very interesting situation was observed in the Turkic languages. There are 93 recorded Turkish bear names, while the other members of the language group demonstrate a much weaker interest in this kind of nomination: 7 (in Tatar), 6 (Kazakh), 5 (Kirghiz), 2 (Turkmen and Uzbek), and 1 (in Gagauz, Uyghur, and Karachay-Balkar) – and even here, around half of these are Latin calques. However, this may, at least to certain extent, be related to the amount of the historical ethnolinguistic research done on the selected languages. Nevertheless, a rough approximation based on the mean number of names in all languages belonging to a language group allowed to list the language groups according to the bear-richness: Germanic, Slavonic, Finno-Ungarian, Romance, Other (Albanian and Lithuanian) and Turkic (Fig. 4). However, such approximation should not be taken too literary, as much depended on the presence of small languages and the languages we researched do not cover all languages of the groups.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Relation between language groups and the number of recorded bear-phytonyms. names – the number of recorded bear-names. mean – the mean number of names within the language group

From structural point of view, we may conclude that bear-names might be created according to several models: 1) bear/she-bear, 2) bear + a body part of the bear, 3) bear + a part of the plant, 4) bear + a plant name, 5) bear + a plant group name, 6) bear + an object name.

On the one hand, some plants are “champions” in bear-nomination, while others have only one or two bear names. On the other hand, some features – form and/or surface, in our case – cause a very rich pool of names, while such features as colour seem to provoke rather few associations with bear.

Some names recorded in a certain tradition may be used for explanation of dark spots in another one. For example, Serbo-Croat, Hungarian, and Turkish bear-names for Boletus spp., having no explanations inside these traditions, may be ascribed to status nomination by analogy with Russian folk names. The case of Polytrichum commune, analysed above, allows us to surmise not only form nomination in Russian, Estonian, etc. (based on Nordic explanations), but also borrowing from the Scandinavian languages, as all the names in the pool are recorded in the Northern regions of Europe.

The database we assemble is also valuable for comparative and typological studies. For example, it shows correspondence of names in Latin and in other languages and demonstrates the deep influence of Latin natural-science scholarship upon European culture. Comparing names in neighbouring cultures (e.g. Northern Russian and Estonian; Baltic and Nordic) could become a good basis for studying the question of the borrowing of plant names.


  1. Special thanks to Dániel Babai for this fieldwork evidence.



Gomelj province, Belarus


Kostroma province, Russia

Middle Ob:

middle part of the river Ob


Novosibirsk area


Orel province, Russia


Perm province, Russia


Pskov province, Russia


Smolensk province, Russia


Tobolsk region, Russia


Vladimir province, Russia
















Crimean Tatar




















Ingrian Finnish


















North Saami












































































































































































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We are thankful to Professor Raimo Raag, Uppsala University, for fruitful discussions. We would like to thank Professor Lars-Erik Edlund for providing us with material from the Swedish and Norwegian plant name in the Diabas Database at Umeå University. Special thanks for the opportunity to collect the data from the Turkish Plant Names’ Database of İstanbul Nezahat Gökyiğit Botanic Garden ( in 2014.


OTKA (Hungarian Scientific Research Fund) grant (PD 108534) supported work of NP; Estonian Ministry of Education and Research (EKKM14-300) supported fieldwork of RS and RK, Estonian Research Council (IUT22-5), and European Union through the European Regional Development Fund (Centre of Excellence in Estonian Studies) supported research made by RK and RS.

Availability of data and materials

The dataset supporting the conclusions of this article was included within the article as its (Table 1).

Authors’ contributions

Initiation and assembling of the article (VK, IS, AP, RS, JR), “Introduction“ (VK, IS, RS), identification of original and modern nomenclatures (LS), Fig. 1 (VK), all other figures and tables (RS) and various language contribution: Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Serbian, Macedonian, Slovenian, Sorbian, Czech, Ruthenian (VK), Swedish (including Swedish in Finland and Estonia), Norwegian, Danish, French, Finnish, South Saami, North Saami, Livonian, Votic, Azeri, Bashkir, Chuvash, Karachay-Balkar, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Tatar, Turkish, Uyghur, Uzbek (IS), Estonian, Finnish, Ingrian Finnish, Izhorian, Votic (RS, RK), Turkish (AMGÖ), Polish, Slovak, Croatian, Ukrainian (ŁŁ), Italian (AP, KC), German (LS, IS), Hungarian (ZM, NP), Lithuanian (DŠ), English (JR, IS), Bulgarian (DD), Albanian (AH). All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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All fieldworks followed the ethical guidances of Code of Ethics of International Society of Ethnobiology, whereas prior oral informed consent was obtained from every interviewed person. The approval of Ethic Committee for such studies is not applicable.

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Kolosova, V., Svanberg, I., Kalle, R. et al. The bear in Eurasian plant names: motivations and models. J Ethnobiology Ethnomedicine 13, 14 (2017).

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