Q. Is the word "brutal" derived from the name of Brutus, Caesar's assassin?

A. The story is more complicated than that. In ancient Latin, the adjective "brutus" meant, literally, "heavy," a sense that eventually was extended to "dull, stupid" as well. The first person named "Brutus" was Lucius Junius Brutus, a legendary Roman hero who established Republican government at Rome in the 6th century B.C. He was the son of a rich Roman, and when his father died the despotic king Tarquinius Superbus seized the family's property and killed an elder brother. Lucius Junius (as he was called then) escaped by feigning idiocy, and he thereby acquired his additional name, Brutus.

The earliest sense of English "brutal," which appeared in the 15th century, was "typical of beasts." This meaning was derived from a later Latin sense of "brutus," which had acquired further extended meanings beyond "stupid," such as "irrational" in reference to animals and "thoughtless, inconsiderate" in reference to people.

It's clear, then, that the name "Brutus," referring in particular to Marcus Junius Brutus, who headed the conspiracy against Julius Caesar and was one of his assassins, is not the source of our word "brutal." But that's not to say that the later senses of "brutal" weren't influenced by history, or to be more precise, by literature. From the time Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, at the beginning of the 17th century, the name "Brutus" has been associated with treachery, if not cruelty. The "cruel, cold-blooded" sense of English "brutal" did not appear until the 17th century. Our association of "Brutus" with treachery may indeed have made it that much easier for "brutal" to make the transition from describing the crude irrationality of beasts to describing the cruel savagery of humans.

Q. What's the difference between a panther and a leopard. I always thought panthers were black and leopards had spots, but a friend of mine tried to tell me recently that that's not true. She says they are the same animal. Which one of us is right?

A. "Panther" is actually a general term that can refer to any of several large cats; namely, the leopard, the cougar (also called "catamount," "mountain lion," and "puma") or the jaguar. But you aren't the first person to have ever been stumped by this word. In fact, the confusion surrounding "panther" dates back to ancient times.

The word "panther" derives ultimately from Greek and was passed down through Latin to Old French and on to Middle English. Strictly speaking, the Latin term, "panthera," referred to the animal we now call "leopard" (Panthera pardus). But the panther was an exotic and unfamiliar creature to the ancient and medieval writers who were responsible for passing its name on to us, and a considerable amount of confusion (and some fanciful descriptions!) resulted from their lack of familiarity with the actual cat. Further complicating matters was the fact that Latin had another word for the same animal, "pardus," and a number of writers and scholars mistakenly assumed that the "panthera" was a beast distinct from the "pardus." For instance, the panther was popularly thought to be larger and more powerful than a leopard and was fabled to have sweet-smelling breath.

In actuality, the large cat we now call the "leopard" (Panthera pardus) varies significantly in size and markings and is found in a wide range of territories throughout southern Asia and Africa. Leopards are usually tawny or buff with black spots arranged in rosettes, but they can also be black all over. It is these black leopards that are commonly referred to today as "panthers" or "black panthers." The distinction is not a scientific one, however. Though they are often mistakenly assumed to be a separate species, leopards of the black color phase are born in the same litters as those with lighter ground color.

The name "leopard" also has an interesting history. Originally, as mentioned above, the name for this species was "pardus" or "pard." The name "leopard" was originally applied to another animal (probably the cheetah), which was thought to be a cross between a lion ("leo") and a pard, but eventually "leopard" replaced "pard" as the common name for Panthera pardus.