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.

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Home is where the haunt is

For word nerds, the real candy of Halloween is all the great words it gives out: werewolf, jack-o’-lantern,  samhainophobia.  But, as we so often see on this blog, sometimes it is the less unusual and more everyday word that can be the sweetest treat. Let’s have a look at just such a seasonal one: haunt. Its etymology really hits “home,” we might say.

There's no place like home.
“Haunted house.” Ink on paper. Doodle by (and happy birthday to) @andrescalo.

Haunt

The word haunt has been, well, haunting the English language since the early 13th century. But for all its spectral associations today, the word originally had nothing to do with ghosts.

As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records, the word’s earliest meanings refer to practicing some action habitually or frequenting a place habitually. This sense is preserved today in a noun form of haunt, as in an old haunt one used to visit often.

Now, Shakespeare has given us many spectacular ghosts, perhaps most dramatically in  Hamlet. But Shakespeare has also given us – or at least popularized – the spookier shades of haunt, as many maintain. For this usage, the OED first cites 1597’s Richard II: “Some haunted by ghosts they haue deposed.” In this sense, it is a ghost that is frequently and habitually coming back to a place.

Earlier in the century, it is worth noting, haunt was already shaping up to signify other “unseen or immaterial visitants,” as the OED hauntingly puts it, such as disease, memories, thoughts, or feelings. This the OED records in Richard III also in that very same 1597: “Your beauty which did haunt me in my sleepe: To vndertake the death of all the world.” This usage of haunt, of course, lives on today.

Following the development of its source verb, haunted first drapes on its white sheet, so to speak, as early as 1711. We eventually get to haunted houses and the ghastly lore of their former tenants. The Online Etymology Dictionary states haunted house is attested by 1733.

There’s no place like home

But haunt might actually have a deeper connection to houses. The word comes from the French hanter, whose meaning echoes haunt‘s early senses in English. According to French philologists Baumgartner and Ménard, the ghostly sense of hanter in French was spread in that language thanks to 18th-century English gothic and fantasy fiction. This suggests that the ghostly haunt is original to English, though the Online Etymology Dictionary notes this meaning may have been active in Proto-Germanic.

From here, however, the etymological trail goes cold. We do have plenty of suggestions, though. Most converge on a Germanic root that produced English’s very own home – in Old English, hām, whose form may look familiar in the derivative hamlet (but not Prince Hamlet). Scholars like Eric Partridge and Ernest Klein pointed to a Scandinavian cognate heimta, “to bring home,” specifically cattle. (To get more technical and speculative, the Proto-Germanic root is *haimaz, derived from the Proto-Indo-European*tkei-, “to settle,” “to dwell,” or “to be home.”)

Walter Skeat, however, wasn’t fully satisfied. In addition to heimtahis work cites the Breton hent, “a path,” a nasalized Latin habitāre, “to dwell,” and Latin’s ambitus, “a going about,” which he considered to be the likeliest explanation.

For etymologists, it might just be the “origin unknown” or “origin obscure” that proves most, er, haunting, of all.

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