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noun [countable]

an animal which is a cross between a donkey (= a grey/brown animal similar to a horse but with long ears) and a zebra (= an African animal similar to a horse but with black and white stripes on its body)

'An act of love between Martin the zebra and Giada the donkey in the romantic Italian city of Florence has produced a rare zonkey baby that is drawing crowds to an exotic animal shelter.'

Sydney Morning Herald 2nd November 2013

In the summer of 2013, an animal sanctuary in Florence, Italy, was the focus of worldwide attention when it welcomed a particularly unusual four-legged arrival. A chance romantic encounter between Martin the zebra and Giada the donkey 12 months earlier had led to the spectacular creation of Ippo, a cute zebra-donkey cross correspondingly described as, erm ... , a zonkey, of course.

the zonkey is just one sub-type among a number of zebra hybrids, or zebroids, the generic term for animals which are a cross between a zebra and another equine … species

Zonkeys are relatively rare, and in fact Ippo only came to be because Martin, a resourceful and 'enthusiastic' male zebra, managed to leap out of his enclosure and use his snout to lift the latch to the donkey stable. Once inside, he demonstrated his passion for Giada, a rare breed Italian donkey, and the rest is history, the fruit of his advances producing the only zonkey currently in Italy. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that parenthood will be an option for young Ippo, since by a quirk of their genetic make-up zonkeys are usually infertile.

The zonkey is just one sub-type among a number of zebra hybrids, or zebroids, the generic term for animals which are a cross between a zebra and another equine (horse-related) species. Zebroids physically resemble their non-zebra parent, but have stripes like a zebra. Other examples are the zorse, the offspring of a male zebra and a female horse, and the zony, from a male zebra and female pony. Both of these can be ridden, and are sometimes even bred for the purpose.

In contrast to a zonkey, which usually refers to a cross between a male zebra and female donkey, the terms donkra and zedonk are often reserved for the combination of a female zebra and male donkey. There are also plenty more lexical variations on the zonkey theme, including zebonkey, zebronkey and zebadonk. From a word formation perspective, however, zonkey seems more likely to catch on than the others because it resembles the familiar syllabic pattern of donkey – the most successful coinages are often the ones that echo familiar forms, thereby enabling us to pronounce them at once.

Background – zonkey

Geneticists and natural historians have been investigating zebra hybrids since the early 19th century, though portmanteau terms such as zonkey, zorse etc have only begun to appear relatively recently. Some of these words even feature particular species, such as the term Zetland, which is used to refer to a cross between a zebra and Shetland pony.

Equine species are not the only animals to have produced unusual offspring through cross-breeding. Though they rarely occur naturally, other hybrids do occasionally occur when animals from different but closely related species mate, their young sharing traits from both parents. Examples include the liger, a combination of a female tiger and male lion which is larger than both its parents; the tigon, its female lion and male tiger counterpart; the leopon, a mix between a lion and a leopard; the wholphin, a cross between a killer whale and female bottlenose dolphin; the cama, a cross-breed of a camel and a llama (originally bred for the combination of camel strength and cooperative llama temperament, though with little success as the resulting animal has the temperament of a camel!); and a fusion of a male grizzly and female polar bear known as the grolar bear.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

For teachers

Would you like to use this BuzzWord article in class? Visit onestopenglish.com for tips and suggestions on how to do just that! The downloadable pdf contains a student worksheet which includes reading activities, matching words for animal body parts with their dictionary definitions, matching baby animals with their parents, and choosing the correct animal to complete idioms.

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This article was first published on 4th February 2014.

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the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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