Pandas seem like the most innocent, uncontroversial animals of all time, so perhaps it's poetic justice that its origin is hotly debated. There's a multitude of competing theories I was able to read about, but I'll just cover the main ones. There's the Tibetan phrase nigalya ponya, with a loose meaning of "eater of bamboo" (this was originally applied to the red panda, though it's really more of a skunk than a regular panda). This would have lost the first word over time and gotten modified to panda, according to the theory. Another possibility is that it comes from Tibetan phon nya, which meant "messenger". In either case, it's not Chinese; though they have a whole batch of their own hotly contested etymologies for their word for panda, it's not related to ours. We got our word for panda through French, surprisingly enough. It's surprising that it's not the British, because they were actually in the area, but this is how language works.
Adam Aleksic is a 220-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 College in the fall.
The Etymology Nerd