I’ll tell you why mountain lions are called mountain lions and why they are also called cougars and pumas (and painters).
Columbus is one of the first to call this cat a ‘lion’ because of its tawny coat which resembles that of the African lion. Also, the name ‘lion’ or ‘león’ is widely used in large parts of Spanish speaking South and Central America.
The name ‘puma’ first appeared in 1609 according to the author Jim Bob Tinsley in his book: The Legendary Lion of the Americas published in 1987. He writes that it was Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, a chronicler and writer who was born in Viceroyalty of Peru and the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador, who wrote: “Lions are met with, though they are not so large nor so fierce as those of Africa. The Indians call them puma.”
He was saying that it was fairly easy to see a puma in those days as he writes that ‘lions are met with’. So, what were the Indians of Peru at that time?
The reference to Indians is to the Incas formed by the ethic Quechna people also known as the Amerindians. They created the largest empire ever seen in the Americas: the Inca Empire.
Dictionaries state that the origin of the word ‘puma’ is said to be late 18th century: via Spanish from Quechna. This squares up with the above.
There appears to be two errors which created the word ‘cougar’. Therefore, the name is almost entirely accidental and has no logical meaning in that it is not truly based on an earlier language or usage.
This alternative name for the puma seems to have been derived from ‘a word used by the German geographer Georg Marcgrave in 1648’ (source: Wild Cats of the World). He used the Guarani word ‘cuguacuarana’ in reference to the puma. It was shortened to ‘cuguacuara’.
It is said that Marcgrave incorrectly copied the Tupi Indian word ‘sassúarána’ meaning ‘false deer’ to ‘cuguacuarana’. He was well off the mark as you can see. What was going on one wonders?
Later George Buffon in writing about animals that he had never seen modified the word in creating the word ‘cuguar’ – a contraction of cuguacuara. Was this a typo or a deliberate contraction? George Buffon’s full name was Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. He was a French naturalist, mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste.
From there, through common usage the word was further modified to become ‘cougar’ which is used at present.
As you probably know ‘cougar’ also describes an older woman who seeks a relationship or sex with significantly younger men. How the world has changed just like the word.