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 Commented Apr 20, 2016 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
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 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. Commented Apr 22, 2016 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. Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 4:09
  • "They don't resemble bears much in my opinions" - in your opinion only :> Commented Jan 28, 2022 at 7:07

4 Answers 4


As far as the "bear" part is concerned, the primary explanation is the name in the earlier Linnaean taxonomy, Ursus cauda elongata i.e. "Long-tailed bear", which was the name assigned to the raccoon and the coatimundi. This is clear from the second edition of Systema Naturae since it lists the existing scientific designation Vulpi affinis americana, the earliest scientific name for "racoon" assigned by John Ray. It probably also applies to the first edition which lists three instances of Ursus, namely ursus, coati and wickhead, the later not even showing up in the OED. The Linnaean taxonomy is based on similarities, however we do not know what specific similarities he saw between bears, raccoons and coatimundis. Since raccoons and bears are members of the clade arctoidea, there are numerous similarities. At any rate, it reduces to the fact that Linnaeus perceived a similarity between bears and raccoons and thus used the genus name "bear" to cover them. Everything else is a calque from the Linnaean name.

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    And the reason is that raccoons, like bears, are plantigrade, rather than digitigrade, like cats and dogs.
    – Leo B.
    Commented Jan 28, 2022 at 20:06

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 -- Lat. 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. Ameisenbär, literally ant + bear "Aardvark").

Another Proto-Indo-European root for the bear is *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, whence ursus, cp. AGreek arktos, 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]'', or just big'un, as it can stand errect for short periods of time.

Piotr Gąsiorowski on the beaver (Ger. Bieber) has pondered a derivation of to bear at langevo.

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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
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 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
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 21:37
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    "Koala bear" comes to mind. And in some languages anteaters are called "ant bears".
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 21:48

Well, just how do these animals act ?

Please, consider their DIET !

Bear and Racoon are indiscriminant Omnivores.

Gardeners know that both will raid the sweetcorn patch ! ! !

These animals will dig through one's unattended garbage . . . 

( Also, when confronted with danger, both will climb up a tree. )


  • Behaviors are hardly reliable. All the things you're describing here are too generic they might as well are behaviors of a human hobo (indiscriminate omnivores, digging through unattended garbage, climbing trees when in danger,...) Commented Jan 28, 2022 at 2:09

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