The origin of zebra may not be just black and white! The exotic z and consonant combination hint at an African language, and that is certainly one of the theories. But it might not be. What we do know for sure is that zebra comes from its Italian cognate of zebra, which comes from its Portuguese cognate zebra. Here is where we start making progress: the Portuguese word apparently goes to Old Portuguese enzebro, which referred to an undomesticated donkey. This probably traces to an even older word, enzebrario. At this point, the OED (Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most renowned and comprehensive works of etymology) lists the origin as Congolese. This could make sense; the Portuguese occupied the Congo, and the word has an African vibe to it. However, another theory quoted by many is that this goes back to Latin, and the word equiferus, "wild horse". If this is true, finding the origin gets a lot simpler than trawling through unrecorded Central African words; it's clearly a portmanteau of equus ("horse") and ferus ("wild"). Equus traces to Proto-Italic ekwos, from the Proto-Indo-European etymon hekwos, also the ancestor of today's word horse. Ferus (also the direct ancestor of the current word feral, through the later Latin word fera) is commonly acknowledged to be from PIE ghwer, "wild". Conclusively, either a zebra is a "wild horse" or it's a "donkey" from Africa.
Adam Aleksic is a 221-month-old, 2800-ounce high school senior with disturbing interests in etymology, vexillology, geography, board games, limericks, and law. Adam will be studying linguistics at Harvard University in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd