hip·​po·​pot·​a·​mus ˌhi-pə-ˈpä-tə-məs How to pronounce hippopotamus (audio)
plural hippopotamuses or hippopotami ˌhi-pə-ˈpä-tə-ˌmī How to pronounce hippopotamus (audio)
: any of a family (Hippopotamidae) of very large, four-toed, chiefly aquatic, herbivorous artiodactyl mammals having a very large head and mouth, nearly hairless thick grayish skin, long lower canine teeth, and relatively short legs, and including two living species:
: one (Hippopotamus amphibius) of sub-Saharan Africa that has webbing between the toes, spends most of the day in or near water, and typically weighs between 3 to 4 tons (2700 to 3600 kilograms)

Illustration of hippopotamus

Illustration of hippopotamus

Examples of hippopotamus in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Other winners include a shot taken in South Africa of a hippopotamus appearing to get ready to take a bite out of a heron standing on the back of another hippopotamus. Joseph De Avila, WSJ, 8 Dec. 2022 While more stats need to be collected, one study found that the probability of being killed by a hippopotamus attack is in the range of 29% to 87% – higher than that of a grizzly bear attack at 4.8%, shark attack at 22.7% and crocodile attack at 25%. Forrest Brown, CNN, 12 Apr. 2023 The urban legend is that the song was recorded as a fundraiser to get a hippopotamus at a local zoo, but apparently that's not the reality. Abigail Rosenthal, Chron, 1 Dec. 2021 The jackal is associated with Anubis, god of death; the falcon with Horus, god of the sky; the hippopotamus with Taweret, goddess of fertility. Nathaniel J. Dominy, Scientific American, 1 Nov. 2021 In 1996, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, then president of the university, bought a bronze rendition of a hippopotamus at an antique store and gave it to the class of 2000. Nick Anderson, Washington Post, 6 Apr. 2023 The late cocaine baron illegally imported four hippopotamuses from Africa to Colombia in the 1980s. Chloe Taylor, Fortune, 30 Mar. 2023 The animal has been an unofficial mascot since 1996, when a statue of a hippopotamus was given as a gift to the class of 2000 by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the university president at the time. April Rubin, BostonGlobe.com, 26 Mar. 2023 The animals are descendants of four African hippopotamuses illegally imported by the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. Jason Hahn, Peoplemag, 3 Mar. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'hippopotamus.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Latin, from Greek hippopotamos, alteration of hippos potamios, literally, riverine horse

First Known Use

1542, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of hippopotamus was in 1542

Dictionary Entries Near hippopotamus

Cite this Entry

“Hippopotamus.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hippopotamus. Accessed 29 Sep. 2023.

Kids Definition


hip·​po·​pot·​a·​mus ˌhip-ə-ˈpät-ə-məs How to pronounce hippopotamus (audio)
plural hippopotamuses or hippopotami -ˌmī How to pronounce hippopotamus (audio)
: a very large mammal of Africa south of the Sahara Desert that spends most of its time in the water, feeds on plants, has an extremely large head and mouth, very thick hairless grayish skin, and short legs with four toes on each foot
also : a smaller related mammal of western Africa

from Latin hippopotamus "hippopotamus," from Greek hippopotamos (same meaning), literally, "river horse," from hippos "horse" and potamos "river"

Word Origin
The ancient Greeks gave the name hippopotamos to a big, barrel-shaped animal they saw in Africa. English, using the Latin spelling hippopotamus, has kept this name. It is a combination of the Greek words hippos, meaning "horse" and potamos, meaning "river." In fact, the hippopotamus is more closely related to the hog than to the horse. However, the "river" in the name is certainly right for an animal that always lives near water and spends most of its time in it. The eyes, ears, and nostrils of a hippopotamus are placed so that the animal can see, hear, and breathe even if most of its head is underwater.

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