The Name “Cougar” is a Mistake

the best picture of a cougar
Photo by ucumari (new window)
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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.


  1. Wikipedia
  2. Wild Cats Of The World

5 thoughts on “The Name “Cougar” is a Mistake”

  1. Another fascinating article thank you Michael and this is what makes PoC the best web site for cat lovers, you cover so many topics on various cats that it never gets boring.

  2. Please explain how an Incan would be able to perceive a Puma to be not as fierce as an African Lion. This I’ve got to hear.

    So much of your blogs appear to be nothing more than a layman’s fanciful imaginings. Your ones about evolution are a royal hoot to read for anyone with at least a middle-school education.

    • I am not going to mindlessly regurgitate what other website’s say. What is the point? If you want that, go to another bland cat website.

      You tell me specifics about what I say about evolution that is a hoot. Either what I say is based on well resources material or I personally speculate. I am entitled to speculate. At least I have the courage to do that. All you can do is moan and make a negative remark. Why don’t you put forward some of your views? Let’s hear them.

      There are many pages on cat evolution. Here two examples:

      Please explain how an Incan would be able to perceive a Puma to be not as fierce as an African Lion. This I’ve got to hear.

      I obviously was not clear in what I wanted to say. I have tried to make the point more clear. The Incans called the cat “puma” and the Spaniard recognised the lion as fiercer.

      So much of your blogs appear to be nothing more than a layman’s fanciful imaginings

      So much? How much? The website has 8,000 pages. 99.9% is straight fact from good resources. Sometimes, rarely, I like to speculate and present new ideas. This is good. Do you have your own ideas?

      And in any case, new ideas are often discredited by reactionaries as “fanciful imaginings”.

  3. In Florida it referred-to as the Florida panther. It is endangered and highly inbred being cut off from other mountain lion populations by dense human presence.
    There are many native languages alive in Latin America. Even tiny Costa Rica has a few.

  4. Very interesting. I never heard any of that before. Mountain Lion is the word used in our area, but I do like the word Cougar, so I used that instead. Around here the term Puma refers to the cats south of the United States. So one of these cats would be a puma in Mexico, cross the boarder and be called a Mountain Lion in Arizona, USA. lol

    Cougar is used east of us. Perhaps north as well. I know the terms Cougar and Mountain Lion are interchangeable in most areas. There are a few states who prefer one or the other. Arizona uses Mountain Lion while Colorado, Idaho and a few others use only the term Cougar to refer to our largest cat.

    Great story. Very interesting information.


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