Fun Etymology Tuesday – werewolf

Hi everyone!

As those of you who can infer patterns from single occurrences might know, Tuesday is Fun Etymology Day here at the HLC.

However, this Tuesday is also Halloween! What an amazing coincidence! (Or is it???)
So, just for today, we’ll be having Spooky Etymology Day.

Today’s word is “werewolf”.

Ever since people started gathering around campfires at night, the werewolf has always been a fixture of scary stories: a human being who transforms into a ferocious wolf under the light of the full moon, overwhelmed by an insatiable urge to kill everyone they meet.

You probably already guessed what the “wolf” part of “werewolf” means, so we won’t dwell on that.
But what exactly is that “were” bit which distinguishes this terrifying beast from a regular old wolf?
One thing we can anticipate: it’s not the past tense of “to be”.

The “were” of “werewolf” is, in fact, the last remnant of the Old English word “wer”, which was once the common word for “man”, before disappearing and being replaced by the modern word “man” sometime around the 13th century. Those of you who studied Latin might recognize this word as coming from the same root as the Latin word “vir” (pronounced “weer”), meaning the same thing.

However, the word “man” was never able to fully kill its predecessor, and the word “wer” lives on in undeath, forever chained to its bestial counterpart in the word “werewolf”, the man-wolf!

Happy Halloween everybody!

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