The word "raccoon" was adopted into English from the native Powhatan term, as used in the Colony of Virginia.
In the first decades after its discovery by the members of the expedition of Christopher Columbus, who was the first person to leave a written record about the species, taxonomists thought the raccoon was related to many different species, including dogs, cats, badgers and particularly bears.
Based on fossil evidence from France and Germany, the first known members of the family Procyonidae lived in Europe in the late Oligocene about 25 million years ago.
As of 2005, Mammal Species of the World recognizes 22 subspecies.
Head to hindquarters, raccoons measure between 40 and 70 cm (16 and 28 in), not including the bushy tail which can measure between 20 and 40 cm (8 and 16 in), but is usually not much longer than 25 cm (10 in).
The most important sense for the raccoon is its sense of touch.
Zoologist Clinton Hart Merriam described raccoons as "clever beasts", and that "in certain directions their cunning surpasses that of the fox."
Studies in the 1990s by the ethologists Stanley D. Gehrt and Ulf Hohmann suggest that raccoons engage in gender-specific social behaviors and are not typically solitary, as was previously thought.
Though usually nocturnal, the raccoon is sometimes active in daylight to take advantage of available food sources.
One aspect of raccoon behavior is so well known that it gives the animal part of its scientific name, Procyon lotor; "lotor" is neo-Latin for "washer". In the wild, raccoons often dabble for underwater food near the shore-line. They then often pick up the food item with their front paws to examine it and rub the item, sometimes to remove unwanted parts. This gives the appearance of the raccoon "washing" the food.
Raccoons usually mate in a period triggered by increasing daylight between late January and mid-March.