Lemurs and larvae: creatures of the etymological night

Vampires, witches, demons, and zombies? The Halloween season spooks us with many ghouls and goblins, but you might want to watch out for two other creatures lurking in the etymological dark: lemur and larva.

Zoologically, lemurs and larvae have little in common, but etymologically, they have several interesting connections. First, both words were first applied by Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish Father of Taxonomy. Second, both derive from Latin words for ghosts. And third, if some etymological ghost-hunting is correct, lemur and larva have ravenous appetites.

Due to the slow yet humanlike movements of these nocturnal Madagascar primates, Linnaeus named lemurs after the Latin lemurēs, “spirits of the dead.” In ancient Roman beliefs, these baddies – whose incorporeal damnation, some accounts say, resulted from violent deaths they suffered or evil deeds they committed when alive – wandered the night to torment, and even drive mad, the living. In Latin, lemurēs appears in plural form, making lemur a modern singular. This word first appears in the English record in 1795, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records it.

The larvae were another species of night-prowling specter in Roman mythology. In Latin, the word means “ghost” but also, apparently due to associations with the spirits of the dead,  “mask.” As the Century Dictionary nicely sums it up, “The term was applied by Linnaeus in the sense that the larval stage of an insect masks or hides the true character or image of the species.” The caterpillar or tadpole are prime examples. Larva as such did first mean “ghost” in English, as the OED attests it in 1651, but, after Linnaeus used the term, its restricted entomological sense prevailed.

For the ancient Romans, the counterpart to the larvae and lemurēs were the Larēs, tutelary deities guarding over households, families, crossroads, and cities. Some, like Ernest Klein and Eric Partridge, have attempted to connect the very words Larēs, lemurēs, and larva. Klein, for instance, takes larva back to an Indo-European root for “to be greedy,” the same root eventually yielding lascivious and lust. (Larēs might actually be Etruscan origin, however.) Lemurēs Partridge sees as cognate to a Greek word for “greedy.” The sense, he notes, is of “jaws wide open,” as in a “devouring monster,” pointing to lamia, a mythical witch who sucked the blood of children. Trick or treat.

This Halloween, heed the etymologists. Get some of the good candy ready and watch out for any costumes with ringed tails or kiddos dressed up as caterpillars. They’re hungry.

m ∫ r ∫ 

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