Puma, mountain lion and cougar are the three most common names for the puma, the large wild cat that has the largest distribution in the Western Hemisphere. “Puma” is the more scientific name of these three. However, “cougar” is used a lot more in America as a name for this wild cat.
It is also used a lot as a name for sports teams and cars and indeed anything that is meant to have some pep, get-up-and-go. “Cougar” also describes sexually active older women preying on younger men. The interesting thing is that the word is a mistake. It should never have been created.
Apparently the word “cougar” was derived from a word used by a German geographer named Georg Marcgrave in 1648. He used a word from the Guarani language said to be “cuguacuarana“. The Guarani language is an indigenous language of South America and, today, is the main language of Paraguay. It was used to refer to the puma. It is the only indigenous language of the Americas.
However, it appears – and this is the mistake – that Marcgrave transcribed the original word incorrectly. The true, and original Guarani word was not “cuguacuarana” but “sassúarána” – a noticeable difference and hard to see how he made such a big mistake. “Sassúarána” is a Tupi Indian word that translates to “false deer”. The Tupi Indians were one of the main ethnic groups of Brazilian indigenous people¹.
A French naturalist, George Buffon, then imposed his version of the word on the world. He had never seen the puma. He contracted the word “cuguacuarana” to “cugar”. This seems to be a simple renaming, in effect. The next step, it appears, was that cugar become cougar.
In conclusion, the original word for cougar described an animal that looked like a deer but was not. This word was mistakenly mistranscribed and from that mistake the famous name for this beautiful cat, cougar, was eventually derived. To think that hundreds of sports teams have a name that has origins in a mistake.
Incidentally, the word “puma” comes from the Incas. The word was first used in 1609 by the son of a Spanish conquistador named Carcilasso de la Vega who said that the “Indians call them puma”. He saw the puma as a lion that was not as fierce as the African lion, which is true.
- Wild Cats Of The World