Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Daily Hump: Bears

Yesterday we discovered that the Arctic is named after the Greek root for bear, arktikos. Today we're going to look at the word bear itself and why the English and Latin are so incredibly unrelated.

Our word bear comes from the Old English bera. This comes from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *beron, meaning "the brown one" (think bruin). Apparently, a large chunk of the northern branches (the Germanic, Baltic, Celtic and Slavic branches) of our linguistic ancestors had a taboo associated with the names of wild animals being hunted and either deformed or replaced the PIE term. As Wikipedia notes examples include
...the Irish word for "bear" translated means "the good calf", in Welsh it translates as "honey-pig", in Lithuanian it means "the licker" and Russian "медведь" literally means "one who leads to honey".
As my Persian teacher explained to me yesterday this substitution also occurs in many of the languages of northern Central Asia, in lands once populated by the Scythians. Given the Slavs' propinquity to Scythia it's not surprising that the Russians would also adopt this taboo as we see in the above Wikipedia quote. (Interestingly, Scythia was the first state north of the Black Sea to collapse to the Goths in the 2nd c. CE, but more on the Goths later.)

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:: posted by David, 9:09 AM


Honey Pig! I bet that's what Kermit calls Miss Piggy.

I wonder if we're sort of carrying on that taboo by calling a cow "beef" once it hits the table. Same for pork & venison.

Squirrel is just squirrel though. I imagine eating squirrels makes one less squeamish about a lot of things.
Blogger Auntie Sarah, at 8:05 AM  
Not a bad theory but beef and pork are directly from the Latin names for those animals: bos, cow--like bovine and porcus, pig. But check out today's hump for more on venison...
Blogger David, at 8:53 AM  

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