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Interesting Etymologies 37 : Mythical Beasts







"Hello again Word Lovers!" Today we are going into the realms of myth, particularly that of mythical beasts, from the Phoenix to Zombies....


Phoenix was a Phoenician word for red, purple or crimson. (Etmology of these colours can be investigated here: Red: IE10 Purple: IE14.2 Crimson: IE14.1) Whether that is a reference to the colour of the bird or flames themselves is unclear. (Ed: The similarity between Phoenicia and Phoenix is obvious, and the name is understood to mean "The Purple Land" or "Land of the Sunrise".)


Zombie : Suggested to have come from Sombra (Spanish for shadow. Discover some hidden Spanish etymology in IE21) but there are several West African words which could suggest a more plausible route:


Zumbi : Meaning fetish in Kikongo

Nzumbi : Meaning Ghost in Kimbundu

Nzambi: Meaning God in Kimbundu. Originally the name of a snake god, later coming to mean reanimated corpse.


Werewolf: Wolves have been around for a long time and a part of the human experience for most of history (Ed: In fact the cultural attitude to wolves also reflects the changing nature of society. A hunter gatherer society, such as the native Indians [Learn more about some etymologies from their languages in IE8.2 ] revere the wolf as an equal, a pack hunter of prowess. Settled, agricultural communities consider the wolf a threat or a devious competitor) With such a long relationship, it is not surprising there is more than one potential route to trace:


Wer - man or PIE root wi-ro man. Old English wulf which itself comes from Proto-Germanic wulfaz from the PIE root wlkwo - wolf


Vluk : Slavonic for wolf

Lupus : Latin

Lykos : Greek

Varkana : Persian


Ghost: Another Germanic word. A noisy ghost would be a Poltergeist. Proto Germanic gaistaz, possibly PIE root gheis which makes words connected to fear, excitement and amazement. This leads to Gothic usgaisjan and Old English gaestan - to frighten, which seems to have an uncanny resemblance to ghastly and ghost in modern English.


Spectre - Latin derivation spectrum - appearance, vision, apparition. PIE root spek - to observe.


Spirit - Via French to Latin Spiritus (breath/spirit) Spirare (breathe). Perhaps PIE root of (s)peis - to blow.


Voodoo - From West African languages, meaning spirit.


Monster - This word has had quite a journey. We can connect it to Latin Monere - meaning to warn and Monstrum a portent of something bad. This goes to PIE root of Moneie - to remind and even back to Men - mind or thinking. So something you think about, something imagined, something wonderful and terrible.


Charly explores a similar crossover of wonderful and terrible connected to Monster in Russian and Greek. Check out the youtube video or podcast audio to learn more.


Mummy - from medieval Latin Mumia, taken from Arabic Mūmiya (مومياء) meaning embalmed corpse or a bituminous substance used in embalming. The Arabic can possibly be traced back to Persian Mūm, meaning wax.


Graveyard -


Grave: Middle English grave, grafe. Via Old English grafu (cave, grave or trench) to Proto-Germanic graba and PIE greb to dig or scrape.


Yard: Old English geard - fenced enclosure. Proto Germanic gardan, Gothic - gards - house , garda - market stall PIE ghor from root gher to grasp, enclose?


Myth - Mythos in Greek, although we have no further progression on that word.


Manticore - From Greek to Persian meaning tiger or man-eater.


Griffin - Late Latin gryphus which is understood to be a misspelling of grypus from gryps meaning hooked or curved nose, whereas flat nosed, or flat faced was simos which gives us simian.


Cherubim & Seraphim - Looking at the little angels, angelos meaning messenger (discover more about Angels in IE17 )


Cherub comes from Akkadian karubu to bless. An epithet of a bull that was worshipped, The Karibu.


Seraphim appears only once in the Bible and is the plural of Saraph which never appears. The derivation is unclear, it could be burnt or a reference to flying. Arabic sharafe to be high or tall.





Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here






As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:


SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor


Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.


So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.


Until now.


This is the story of how ‘Nobody’ Skip DeLirio, with the cards finally all dealt in his favour, still managed to fuck it up. History will only take you so far. The rest is make-believe.


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