Let's suppose I am writing a fictional but realistic story about a male zebra.

Here is the problem. On the one hand, the grammatical gender of the Russian word "зебра" is feminine, so it is ungrammatical to write "зебра поскакал" and "полосатый зебра," as the grammatical genders must agree. On the other hand, it is extremely awkward to use feminine grammatical forms like "поскакалa," "попилa," "полосатая," "быстрая" to write about a male zebra when its physiological sex forms an important part of the context. Look how awkward it is: "Зебра стала лидершей табуна и могла выбирать себе партнерш для спаривания." A noun of masculine grammatical gender is needed.

I am aware that there is possibly no obvious or widely accepted Russian word for a male zebra and that whilst it is common to make feminine nouns from masculine ones (лось → лосиха, кабан → кабаниха, крокодил → крокодилица, медведь → медведица, etc.), it apparently does not work in the opposite direction, for apparently there are no suffixes that convert a female animal to a male one.

A variant is "самец зебры," but it would be awkward to use that expression repetitively throughout the story.

Another idea is "зебрик," but this word has a diminutive connotation, which I want to avoid. I want to write about a big and powerful male zebra.

How would the native speakers resolve this issue?

  • 5
    I don't see why you can't use полосатый зебра in a pinch. Foreign loan word tend to keep their endings irrespective of gender. Горячий кофе. Кэтрин пошла в город. Зебра is also a loan word, we're just not used to using it in masculine form.
    – Curiosity
    Jun 5, 2019 at 20:29
  • 1
    @Curiosity : And what if I am writing a story about a male seagull? :)
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 5, 2019 at 20:31
  • 2
    No choice then, need to use самец. Same with crow, squirrel, frog, etc.
    – Curiosity
    Jun 5, 2019 at 20:39
  • 2
    Wait, somebody already did that...
    – Zeus
    Jun 6, 2019 at 4:09
  • 3
    Give him the name Полосатик in the beginning of your story.
    – Alex_ander
    Jun 6, 2019 at 5:08

9 Answers 9


Russian has a long standing tradition of narrating fables (stories featuring anthropomorphic animals).

In this tradition, the grammatical gender of name of the species (not necessarily the proper name of the animal) should be the same as the biological sex of the animal .

Some have mentioned Jungle Book's Bagheera (who had been made a female in Russian adaptation), but this has little to do with his name.

The translator did not see any problem with Akela or Rama or other characters with declension I names, as long as she could put a masculine species name on them: волк, буйвол etc. Raksha is a female wolf, волчица, so she gets to stay a female as well.

However, this is a issue with пантера. The translator was faced with a problem: pick another species (she could have used леопард), make the readers accept that пантера is a boy in this story, or change Bagheera's gender.

I don't know why didn't the translator choose the option 1, but the option 2 (leaving everything as is) was so bad that going through the pain of changing Bagheera's sex through the story and having to cope with arousing difficulties was a better option.

Different authors choose different strategies for dealing with that, but in most cases, either the species or the sex gets changed, and only in rare cases the species name gender and the biological gender are left different:

  • When translating "The Ant and the Grasshopper", Krylov picked another species instead of grasshopper, a dragonfly (стрекоза), apparently to give the fable a better rhythm. Of course she was made a female. He left the word попрыгунья ("a jumper") though, even though dragonflies don't jump.

  • In "Winnie-the-Pooh" adaptations, the Owl (Сова) was made a female character, though a Russian word филин does exist.

  • In "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi", Chuchundra (a rat, крыса) and Karait were made females. Even though the Russian word крайт exists and is masculine, it was deemed too unfamiliar to the Russian reader, so Karait was made just a snake, змея, and hence female.

  • In "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", the Dormouse (Соня) is female. The Caterpillar in different translations is either female (Гусеница) or changes the species (Червяк, "The Worm").

As you mentioned, changing the species name from masculine to feminine is almost always an option in Russian, so I can't think of a reverse situation off the top of my head (changing the biological sex from female to male in the story), but would not be surprised if it was ever the case.

So the answer to your question would be that:

You just don't write a traditional story about a male zebra in Russian. That's not how Russian story telling works.

The Russian word for zebra is feminine, so a zebra character should be female. If he should be male, he should not be a zebra.

If you still want to write a story about a male zebra in Russian, be aware that the reader would experience some sense of inconsistency that the readers in other languages would not. Phrases like Зебра Иван or молодой Зебра подбежал к своей подруге would sound as a not so good translation, as a joke, or something like that, which will distract the reader from the rest of your story. This even can be used for artistic purposes, but again, this would only work in Russian.

If for some reason you just have to make a boy zebra character in a traditional story, you just give this zebra a male name and refer to him by name throughout the story.

  • 2
    Wow, this is really a detailed and interesting answer, I enjoyed reading it. As you mentioned an owl, it came to my mind that the Russians use the idiom ночная сова, similar to the English idiom "night owl" and meaning a person who burns the night oil. I am curious how you will say in Russiain: "Наша ночная сова пришла на работу к полдню" or "Наш ночная сова пришел на работу к полдню," if you mean a male.
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 6, 2019 at 12:01
  • 1
    I guess that both variants are bad; on the other hand, I doubt that ночная сова can be used only to speak about women. So I am curious how the Russians use the idiom ночная сова to speak about men.
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 6, 2019 at 12:06
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    @Mitsuko, Yes, you can use it to refer to a male: "А вот и наша ночная сова пришла". "Мой друг как ночная сова - ложится спать в 2 часа ночи". "Ну ты, Петя, и ночная сова - посмотри на часы". Or a male could refer to himself by saying "Нет, я не жаворонок, я - ночная сова".
    – VL-80
    Jun 6, 2019 at 13:32
  • @Mitsuko I'm no specialist, but as a (almost) native speaker I don't think there are any limitations by gender in metaphorical references. It's perfectly fine for a male to refer to oneself or others as a "улитка" or "черепаха" to emphasize slowness, "сова" for late bedtime, "свинья" for dirtiness/unkempt. The only male animal that I can think that a woman can be referred by would be "жаворонок" for early riser, but I think that's just a limit of my imagination, rather than a grammatical problem.
    – Ordous
    Jun 7, 2019 at 16:23
  • Off topic but just for interest: is соня (lowercase с) actually Russian for dormouse? I saw this in Nabokov's translation of "Alice" but assumed it was a clever Nabokovian joke because (i) Соня (capital С) is a common Russian name, (ii) the root сон- relates to sleep, a characteristic of the dormouse (as does the English/Latin dorm-).
    – David
    Sep 1, 2022 at 23:55

Zebra is a kind of horse, so жеребец (meaning stallion, a male horse) would be a perfectly valid word to refer to a male zebra. Of course it has to be clear from the context that the male horse you're referring to is also a zebra. For example, "полосатый жеребец", makes it pretty clear that you're talking about.

  • 6
    At least with horses, it seems to work as follows: жеребенок is a baby horse, жеребец is a young male horse, and конь is a mature male horse. What I am looking for is a word analogous to конь in terms of meaning but applicable to zebras.
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 6, 2019 at 8:58
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    While "жеребенок" is a baby horse, "жеребец" tells nothing about the age. "Конь" doesn't actually bear the meaning of male horse. E. g. "по коням!" doesn't oblige you to mount a male horse. "Конь" и "лошадь" may indeed sometimes be (informally) used when you talk about male and female horses, but you'd better use "жеребец" and "кобыла" if you want to unambiguously communicate the gender.
    – u354356007
    Jun 6, 2019 at 9:11
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    @Mitsuko sure, that's perfectly valid and sounds good.
    – u354356007
    Jun 6, 2019 at 9:15
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    @Mitsuko "Don't only young horses or zebras qualify as жеребец" - it's quite the opposite, жеребец is a mature male horse, while жеребенок is a young horse (of both sexes). You can figuratively call someone "жеребец" e.g. to imply that they grew too big to live with their parents or ride a 20" bicycle. Jun 6, 2019 at 10:47
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    @Mitsuko, just to avoid confusion, жеребец is very much the same as stallion in English (as stated in the answer), which is not just a male horse, but a 'sexually active' (uncastrated) male horse. For this reason, calling a man жеребец often implies 'excessive' sexual activity rather than age.
    – Zeus
    Jun 7, 2019 at 2:56

Usually, the developed lexicon for some species comes into existence due to the importance of such species in the everyday life of some specific region. That's why we have "кобель", "сука", "щенок"; "котёнок", "кот" and "кошка", "бык", "корова" and "телёнок".

And that's why we don't have a separate word for, say, newly born llamas. The same about zebras - the only real answer is that both in masculine and in feminine in Russian the only word one can use is "зебра". If for some reason this distinction should be done, the answers already provided covered it - "самец" and "самка" are the words to go for.

The other option would be to become a billionaire - or just a very influential person, to coin a new term and invest heavily into its adoption - then it can be "зебрик". Now it's only "зебра" :)

  • 6
    Зебра is a horse-like animal, so the term is жеребец, I believe. But this does not make life much easier in regards to repetitive use. @Mitsuko, multiple repetitions is a stylistic evil no matter if it's zebra or бык. The solution is to alternate.
    – tum_
    Jun 5, 2019 at 19:22
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    @Mitsuko Жеребец. See above.
    – tum_
    Jun 5, 2019 at 22:17
  • @tum_ : Don't only young horses or zebras qualify as жеребец? Can you imagine жеребец as the leader of a herd of zebras? At least with horses, it seems to work as follows: жеребенок is a baby horse, жеребец is a young male horse, and конь is a mature male horse. What I am looking for is a word analogous to конь in terms of meaning but applicable to zebras.
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 6, 2019 at 8:58
  • @Mitsuko конь has a connotation similar to English "mount", and is not necessarily male. Jun 6, 2019 at 11:08
  • @Mitsuko "Don't only young horses or zebras qualify as жеребец?" - it is not my area of expertise but I think I'm right. You can easily check via google, though.
    – tum_
    Jun 6, 2019 at 14:14

In Russian, both the male and female form of zebra is "зебра".

Зебра стала лидершей табуна и могла выбирать себе партнерш для спаривания

The correct form would be "Зебра стал лидером табуна и мог выбирать себе партнерш для спаривания". Otherwise you would be talking about a female zebra. In Russian you have to use the correct form of the (gender of the) verb when referencing objects.

In order to address the issue, you should name your hero (or somehow other differentiate it from the rest of the zeal) and refer to him by his name and not by a generic term "зебра", thus dereferencing the hero's gender from the female sounding "зебра". So it will become something like:

"Степан/Марти/Полосатик/Зебрик родился зеброй", "Он стал лидером табуна", "У него были красивые полоски"

You should avoid using "конь", but "самец" or "жеребец" is legitimate.

  • 4
    I've never expected to say it here, at Russian SE but username checks out )))
    – shabunc
    Jun 6, 2019 at 9:48

That's the matter of personal choice. But as we speaking of animals, I'd like to mention that in the classical Russian translation of "The Jungle Book" Bagheera simply becomes "she" to match his name and species (пантера) better.

But normally, you don't say just "зебра" when speaking of some particular animal anyway. You could say "самец", or, in a fiction story, an animal character could (should) have a personal name, etc.

"Зебрик" is only good for a child zebra.

  • >>an animal character could (should) have a personal name<< I mean rather a realistic story, not a fairy tale. A fictional but realistic story about life of a male zebra.
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 5, 2019 at 18:38
  • 1
    @Mitsuko Names or nicknames are not for fairy tales only. But if you don't feel like it, then самец is usually preferred. Also use он with different cases. This usually feels less repititive.
    – Matt
    Jun 5, 2019 at 18:44
  • What if I formally violate the grammar rules and simply write "полосатый зебр"? Or would "полосатый зёбр" be better, with ё? Is the Russian culture really strict against inventing words like this?
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 5, 2019 at 18:52
  • @Mitsuko i often watch Zoo Park channel, and even field researchers give animals personal names Jun 5, 2019 at 18:52
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    @Mitsuko, nothing much happens. People do it all the time. It actually often sounds cute or funny, but it's always informal, and not very suitable for proper prose. I have a female dog called Тигра, and sometimes I even double bend the gender and say Ну что ты за собак такой! :)
    – Zeus
    Jun 6, 2019 at 4:25

Maybe just name this male zebra? Зебра Степан sounds great! Зебра Степан - единственный Степан в Африке!


In practical terms you once use the locution самец зебры and then drop зебры continuing with самец only, because from that point on it's already clear a male of what animal is being discussed.

In Google the expression самец зебры is common.

But it would be interesting to see how zoologists deal with this deficiency in their literature.

  • Do you really suggest using самец repetitively throughout the story? :)
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 5, 2019 at 18:31
  • Самец побежал. Самец напился. Самец повел табун. Полосатый самец догнал зебру. Самец ускакал ото льва. Isn't such repetitive use awkward?
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 5, 2019 at 18:33
  • @Mitsuko "от льва"... yes sorry, i overlooked the part that it was about a story, for a semi-scientific text my suggestion would do i guess, but in a story a character would probably need to have some kind of a name just like Matt has suggested, this will be a workaround... at any rate it's useful to first see the text so the advice is specific Jun 5, 2019 at 18:47
  • I mean a fictional but realistic story describing life of a male zebra. I doubt a nickname would be suitable.
    – Mitsuko
    Jun 5, 2019 at 18:51
  • 1
    @Mitsuko this sounds comical plus when you speak of a zebra of whatever gender the adjective полосатый is redundant Jun 5, 2019 at 18:55

While it may not be officially a word, "Зебрец", which has an ending that is consistent with both "самец" and "жеребец", would probably be contextually understood.

It may sound weird, but it may also pass off as a neologism. Generally speaking, you may get away with some neologisms when writing fables, especially if they are constructed in a consistent manner.

For what it's worth, Google translate does translate "Зебрец" as "Zebra", when set to translate from Russian to English.

Actually, Google translate also has a recorded pronunciation for it. Google returns 86 results for "Зебрец" search. Although it looks like many of them are in Bulgarian. There is also someone who calls himself "Зебрец Полосатый" on ok.ru. So this word is not an original construction.


"A variant is "самец зебры," but it would be awkward to use that expression repetitively throughout the story."

If this story have a "sciencific style", it won't be awkward to use,it's normally. "cамец зебры" is usually.

And if not, and somebody used like a childness "zebrik" here, you can also use "zebroid" :> It's no really word in Russian for this, but all will understand this construction :> But here may be ironical and comical connotation for this word ... :> (And in the zoology it means slightly other thing)

Or if this is fairy tale or something like it - give a personal name for him..:>

  • 1
    smileys and other emoticons are definitely something we use here quite often but keep in mind that using them that much just makes it more difficult to read your answers.
    – shabunc
    Feb 28, 2020 at 22:01

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