Ebola, Islamic State, European economic wobbles, public shootings, midterm election campaign advertisements–don’t panic, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Nor are we ever with panic, if we consider its etymology.

"Pants." Doodle by me.
“Pants.” Doodle by me.


Today, we might think of panic as a kind of fear, but originally it characterized fear: sudden, wild fear was called panic fear. In its earliest uses before 1586, panic directly described an association with the Greek god Pan, and it is indeed this self-same deity that so induced the English panic.

The word spread to English from the French panique, which started in the Greek πανικός (panikos), describing something “of or for Pan.” Even in Ancient Greek, though, this panic was associated with what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) glosses as “groundless fear.”

See, “Pan was thought to frequent mountains, caves, and lonely places, and sounds heard or fears experienced in such places came to be attributed to him,” the OED states. In fact, etymologists like Ernest Klein consider πανικός a shortening of πανικός δείμα (panikos deima), or “fear caused by Pan.”

According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD), the idyllic, Ancient Greek region of Arcadia was the domain of Pan, a half-goat, half-man shepherd god and son of Hermes always seen with his syrinx (the eponymous pan pipes and source of the word syringe) and lagobolon (a stick used to strike hares). To the OED’s description, the OCD adds: “From the Hellenistic period onwards, Pan is the god responsible for sowing panic in the enemy, a sudden, unforeseeable fear.” I’d certainly panic, though, if I encountered a goat-man.

Atop Arcadian’s Mount Lykaion, a site of great religious and cultural significance, Pan’s name is attested as Πάονι (Paoni), “certainly derived from the root *pa(s), and means ‘guardian of the flocks’ (cf. Latin pascere)” (OCD).

The Proto-Indo-European *pa- means “to protect” or “feed,” and nourished quite a few important derivatives: the English foodfeed, and fodder; the French-based foray and fur, among others; and the Latin pastorpasture, and Romance root for “bread,” panis, source of companion and company.

Many of my sources, though, connect Pan to the Sanskrit Pusan, which Klein describes as a “Vedic god, guardian and multiplier of cattle and of human possessions.” Indeed, Skeat posits a connection to the Sanskrit pa, “to cherish” or “to nourish.” In this light, there seems to be little to panic about in panic.

An economic panic (like the Panic of 1837) is attested in 1757. If you recall my post on mongerpanicmonger goes back to 1845, I believe in reference to what became the Great Famine. Panic button is cited in 1948 from U.S. Air Force Slang: “a button or switch for operating a device in an emergency,” presumably some sort of alarm or eject button. Panic attack is properly attested in 1966, though the sense of it came earlier.

All in All

The ancients certainly weren’t deaf to puns. Pan’s name was associated with the Greek παν, meaning “all.” Due to this association,the Romans adapted Pan as Faunus (hence fauna), as “a universal god, the All” (OCD).

Today, we see pan as prefix: “Pan-American” or “pandemic,” for example. We also see it in panoply (Greek, “all arms,” referring to a full suit of armor), panacea (Greek, “all-healing”), and pandemonium (coined by John Milton as the the capital of hell). Pamphlet, too, contains pan: It comes from a Greek name, Pamphilos (Πάμϕιλος, “loved by all”). Rendered as Pamphilus in Latin, the name was used in a short, very popular, and widely circulated 12th-century amatory poem.

Some really see pan everywhere. Jordan Shipley sees it in the banjo, a “slave pronunciation” (OED) of bandore, a lute-like instrument rooted ultimately rooted in the Greek πανδοῦρα (pandoura). The Greek  refers a three-stringed instrument and also gives us the word mandolin. The banjo itself is from Africa.

Shipley also sees it in pants: Drawing on Klein’s work, “St. Pantaleone: all lion, a Roman physician (d. A.D. 305), became the old buffoon Pantaloon in commedia dell’artefrom his costume, pantaloons, shorted to pants…” San Pantaleone was a Venetian patron saint and Pantaleone became a popular male name.

I, for one, think Pan would have been way less scary had he a proper pair of pants.

 m ∫ r ∫


For me, a good word origin is like discovering an Easter egg, hidden in plain sight yet holding a sweet surprise inside. What surprise might the word Easter hold in its shell?


Any hunt for the origin of Easter points back to the Venerable Bede (~672-735). He was an English monk, scholar, and translator. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a critical and primary source of knowledge on Anglo-Saxon history. Inter alia, his work did much to elevate the English language as a vehicle of scholarship.

Bede also scratched much velum on cosmology, astronomy, and chronology, and it is on these topics in his De Temporum Ratione, or The Reckoning of Time (ca. 735) where we see the earliest attempt to derive Easter. In a passage attempting to explain the Anglo-Saxon names of the months of the year, Bede writes, as translated from the Latin by Faith Wallis:

Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.

The opening of Bede’s “De Temporum Ratione.” Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow.

According to Bede, Eostre was an Anglo-Saxon goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox. The problem, though, is that we can’t find confirmation of this pagan Eostre elsewhere. But as the Oxford English Dictionary asks, why would Bede invent a god to account for Christian one?

Only German and English use “Easter” to name the Christian festival. European languages–including manyScandinavian ones–use terms derived from Jewish Passover, such as Pascha. You may recognize this in the derivative paschal. This passed into Romance languages from the Latin, before that Greek and Aramaic, and ultimately from the Hebrew, pésakh (or pesah). The root–the triconsonantal root, if you’re familiar with Semitic verb structures–is p-s-ḥ (פסח) and means, in essence, “to pass over”–to jump, to skip (Wiktionary).

Nevertheless, Jacob Grimm–whose impressive and influential career included a comprehensive dictionary of the German language; groundbreaking linguistic research, including his formulation of Grimm’s law; and editing what we refer to as Grimm’s Fairy Tales–puts a lot of eggs in the basket of a Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn, *Ostara. He based much of argument on the grounds of linguistic reconstruction and etymological cognates.

New Dawns

While *Ostara is dubious yet possible, Grimm’s hunt doesn’t exactly turn up empty-basketed. For, the Easter cognates point back to a Proto-Germanic *austra-, source of the English east (as in the direction), and further back to Proto-Indo-European *aus“to shineor “clear” and “bright.” They live on in words like Australia, aurora, and the chemical symbol for goldAu (from aurum), all from Latin iterations.

We see, then, at root of Easter, a shining sunrise in the east. For the Easter believers, this Eostre was goddess of spring, of dawn, of fertility, whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox.

New beginnings: That’s what all the Easter symbolism–Christian or pagan–is about, isn’t? With its old root, Easter preserves a new dawn, literal and symbolic.