Fun Etymology Tuesday – Bear

Hail and well met!

It’s Tuesday, and it’s time for our usual appointment with etymologies and fun!

Today’s word is one of the most interesting words in all European languages: “bear”.
I bet you’ve never thought about “bear” as a particularly interesting word, but I assure you that by the end of this post you’ll think differently.

In Europe, the original Indo-European root for “bear”, *rtko, survived in the Romance and Greek languages (as the descendants of Latin “ursus” and Greek “arktos”, respectively) as well as some of the Celtic branch, but was completely lost in the Germanic and Slavic branches. Why? Because the bear was a sacred animal to the Germanic and Slavic people, and uttering its true name was considered an affront to the gods, so workarounds were devised to refer to the bear without offending the powers.
The solution the Germanic people came up with was calling the bear “the Brown One”, and that’s where the modern word “bear” comes from: the Indo-European root *bher-, from which also comes the word “brown”.
Russians call the bear “the Honey Thief”, “medved'”.

As for the original name of the bear? It came back into English through Greek as the word “Arctic”, the place where bears are, and Antarctic, the place away from where the bears are.
That’s right: which of the two poles of Earth you are in is defined by whether or not there are bears in it.

Pretty interesting, is it not?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.