Examples of words that literally mean "washbear" can be found here. This is apparently due to the fact that raccoons just love to wash things so much. But is it just a coincidence that many languages call them "washbears". They don't resemble bears much in my opinions; and the fact that many languages call them "washbears" but not "washdogs" or "washcats" (except for French which uses "washrat") makes me wonder if there's an ultimate etymology, and if there's a calque process going on across languages.

So, why is it "bear" in so many languages? Is that a mere coincidence, or is it because of an ultimate common etymology? Is there calque across languages? If so, what is that ultimate source (from Latin or maybe German?)?

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    Raccoons are called washbears (in my native Czech, "mýval", which is the same word as the verb "he used to wash"), because raccoons like to wash dishes and everything you love. Check some videos at youtube.com/results?search_query=raccoon+wash Yes, it's most languages, including Latin, where it's related to washing, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raccoon#Etymology Apr 20 '16 at 14:59
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    @LubošMotl, the question was not about the "wash" part but about the "bear" part (which, from your account, is not there in Czech anyway).
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 20 '16 at 20:30
  • OK, I think it's obvious why they're bears because they look like bears. Brown hairy wide (not squirrel-like or other thin rodents) animals unrelated to cats or dogs who can sit on their hind legs. Would you have the same problem with pandas or koalas? It is not true that the "bear" avoids Czech. Mýval itself is about the "wash" part only but we often use a longer phrase "medvídek mýval" (little bear washing-guy), too. Apr 22 '16 at 18:43
  • I'm not so sure about that "obvious" part: to me they look more like dogs, and to me while I wasn't aware of the reference to "washbear", they didn't look like bears, and if I had to come with a placeholder name, it would be "civet" or something; if it's that obvious then my questions turn out to be silly 'cuz, well, they look like bears and they wash, and it doesn't matter if you're Japanese or Chinese or German, you'll always perceive them as such. But I really doubt that: to me they don't look much like bears, and the fact that many languages call them "washbears" is rather fishy. Apr 23 '16 at 4:09

I'd venture this guess: both "wash" and "bear" stem from the same observation. Bears are part-time bipeds who occasionally use their forepaws as "arms"; raccoons appear similarly humanlike when engaged in their washing behaviour. A similarity in body shape and fur colour reinforced the association, but probably wasn't its starting point.


Edit: Following TKR's comment bellow, the raccoon came to be known to Europe only in the 17th century, when the name was adopted via calque of the old taxonomic name Ursus lotor (now Procyon lotor) to other languages -- Lt. lotor "wash", cp. *lotion**

According to D. Ringe, bear comes from the root *ǵʰwer- (“wild animal”). In another interpretation, it goes to a meaning "brown". Either way it is not specific to Ursus. (Edit: e.g. antbear "Aardvark",

Another Proto-Indo-European root for bear is *h₂ŕ̥tḱos (Greek arktos, Latin ursus, Albanian ari, Sanskrit ṛ́kṣa, Old Persian xers, Lithuanian irštvà ("bear's den" < *h₂r̥tḱweh₂" ...) which looks to me a lot like rex, e.g. "king [of the forest]" (which would fit in line so well for a comparison with Kratos "ruler", *kret- "intelligence, strength", cp. demo-crat; It probably doesn't derive Heretic as "bear-er [of witness]", but how about that?). At any rate, it seems unlikely that two proper nouns for the bear were in use then.

Piotr Gąsiorowski has pondered the derivation of to bear and connected it, tentatively, with the bee-bear, sorry, beaver (Ger. "Bieber") at langevo.

If I may say so, the white parts of fur may have attributed to a sense "shiny". Raccoon on the other hand means "the one that scratches with its hands", which I imagine involved gesticulation to convey the meaning in translation that was not unlike scratching/washing oneself.

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    The etymology of bear is hardly relevant -- raccoons are North American animals so their names in European languages are all modern.
    – TKR
    Dec 25 '18 at 21:30
  • @TKR: I should complete the answer with references to many other animals named bear, but I can't think of any besides the common name for Tardigrades, at the moment.
    – vectory
    Dec 25 '18 at 21:37
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    "Koala bear" comes to mind. And in some languages anteaters are called "ant bears".
    – TKR
    Dec 25 '18 at 21:48

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