Santa’s reindeer: an etymological herd

Around many holiday hearths tonight, families will recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a poem, properly called “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published anonymously in 1823 and later claimed by American professor and writer Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore’s verse is considered the source of our names for Santa’s reindeer, excluding their later leader, Rudolph:

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And [St. Nick] whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
“On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixem!

As some children are hoping to glimpse Santa’s reindeer across the sky this night before Christmas, let’s have a glimpse at the deeper roots of their high-flying names.


A dasher moves very quickly – or smashes something to little bits, as in one’s hopes for that new iPhone 7 under the Christmas tree. Both senses of the verb to dash are found in the early 1300s, and are connected by an underlying idea of intense energy, whether of force or speed.

The deeper root of dash is unclear. The world may be related to a Scandinavian word for “beat” or “strike,” imitating the sound of dashing something (compare bash, clash, and smash). To dash off a letter appears by the 1720s, and dashing, for “stylish,” emerges in the early 1800s a la “striking.”


Dance enters English in the 1300s from the Old French danser. Its origins, like dash, are also unclear – and somewhat less than graceful, shall we say. Some connect it to the Old High German dansōn, “to stretch out,” as in the limbs. Others suggest the Frankish *dintjan, “to tremble” or “quiver.”   


Prancing involves a jaunty and showy movement, and, originally, was often used not of any reindeer but of horses. A few theories try to explain the source of word, which is first attested in the late 1300s. Prance might come from pranse, Danish dialect for “going about in a proud fashion.” Or could be be related to prank, which has variously meant “to dress up” or “parade around,” rooted in a German word for “to show off.” It’s not certain if this prank has any relationship to those mischievous pranks, like getting a bit of coal in your stocking on Christmas.


A vixen is a “female fox,” from the Old English adjective fyxen. The word gives us a glimpse of English past. Historically, some certain southern England dialects replaced word-initial f’s with v’s – not a surprising switch, as the v-sound is what linguistics term the “voiced” form of f. This switch is preserved only in the spelling of few other words, including vane and vat. And the -en is an old, Germanic suffix used to name female animals (e.g., Old English wylfen, a “she-wolf”).

The word fox, appropriately enough, is from a Germanic base that may be related to an Indo-European root for “tail.” And vixen, a disparaging term for an “ill-tempered woman,” appears by the 1570s. Why Moore chose Vixen as a name for this airborne ungulate may be more about rhyme and meter than meaning. 


Comets speed across the sky, leaving a spectacular tail in its wake. Their tail, to the ancient Greeks, looked like long hair – and indeed, they called the celestial object κομήτης (kometes), or “long-haired star.” The Greek root is κόμη (koma), “the hair of the head.” Latin, with its comēta, borrowed the term, which coursed into English as early as 1154 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.


In Roman mythology, Cupid, depicted with his young wings and arrows, personifies desire and erotic love. His name is the Latin for “desire,” cupīdo, from the verb cupere. The English cupidity denotes an intense “desire for wealth”; concupiscence, for sex.

Donner and Blitzen

In his original A Visit from St. Nicholas, as we saw above, Moore urges on “Dunder and Blixem,” the Dutch for “thunder and lightning.” (Modern Dutch would use Donder and Bliksem.) An 1844 edition of the poem ultimately rendered the Dutch into their German counterparts: Donner and Blitzen. (Blitzen, properly, is “flash.”) Thunder is the English equivalent of Donder and Donner, while English borrowed and shortened blitz from the German Blitzkrieg, whose deadly method of rapid assault literally means “lightning war.” American football took up blitz by the 1960s.


Rudolph is not one of the original reindeer. He came to lead Santa’s cervine crew only in 1939, sparked by the imagination of Robert May, who created his story for Montgomery Ward department stores. Rudolph may be the most famous of the reindeers, but his name, ironically, refers to the glory of his nemesis: Not social isolation, but wolves. Rudolph derives from the Old High German name Hrodulf, “fame-wolf.” The name joins hruod, “fame,” and the Germanic base that gives English wolf.”

For more Christmassy etymologies, see my recent guest posts for Oxford Dictionaries on the soulful origin of wholesome, as well as an older post there covering 12 etymologies of Christmas. Revisit, too, some of Mashed Radish’s tinseled archives, including Christmas, El Niño, chestnut, and Kris Kringle. Happy Holidays! 

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Looms, lilies, and lifespans: The metaphorical stamina of “stamina”

In recent campaigning, Donald Trump has been claiming Hillary Clinton “lacks the physical and mental stamina” to do the work of the presidency. His attacks in no way stand up to the facts, but one thing that does “stand up” is stamina, at least etymologically speaking.

A well-planted metaphor

The Oxford English Dictionary first attests stamina (in Latin form) in 1542, when it referred to the “natural constitution” of an organism, a kind of inborn vitality determining how long it would live and its capacity for resisting disease and hardship. Around 1676, stamina, now as an English word, was naming the “rudiments” or “essential qualities” of an organism, later extended figuratively, say, to an institution or movement. By 1726, as found in the letters of Jonathan Swift, stamina jumped to physical “vigor,” especially in the sense of withstanding the likes of illness and fatigue. Come the 1800s, it reached “moral and intellectual robustness and endurance.”

Originally, stamina was a plural noun both in English and Latin, its source. The singular is stamen. (English has been using stamina in the singular since the 18th century.) We are familiar with stamen in botanical contexts: it’s the part of the plant that makes the pollen. Flemish anatomist Adriaan van den Spiegel is credited for first employing it in this modern, scientific sense in 1633. And thanks to English Bishop John Wilkins, stamen pollinated the English tongue as such by 1668.

We should note, though, that centuries earlier, Pliny, the Roman scholar, lent Latin’s stamen to the lily’s prominent pollen producer; Hesychius of Alexandria, a Greek lexicographer, used its Greek counterpart (στῆμα, stoma) of plants early on as well.

The lily’s stamens, or “stamina.” Image by Mira Pavlakovic, courtesy of

Common “threads”

So, what’s the common thread? Well, it’s just that. Latin’s stamen means “thread,” specifically the “thread of the warp in the upright loom.” The warp acts as a kind of foundation for the weave, which points us to stamen’s literal, base meaning: “that which stands.” Stand is the keyword here, as stamen and stand are ultimately cousins, sharing an ancient ancestor in *sta-, “stand.” This root is a mind-bogglingly prolific root, seen in Afghanistan, establish, obstacle, steed, and system, to name a paltry few derivatives.

The vertical threads are the warp, which the Romans called the “stamen.” Image by Tom Pickering, courtesy of

Pliny, apparently, saw the lily’s stamen as a “thread,” as did van den Spiegel again many years later. But the ancient Romans also saw their mythology in stamen. They used stamen for the “thread of life spun by the Fates,” imagined as three sisters who spun, measured, and cut the threads that controlled the lives and destinies of humanity. In the 18th century, English writers enjoyed using stamen in this very sense, also broadening it to one’s “inborn vitality” much like we saw in the history of stamina.

And the common thread for all of English’s stamina and stamen is metaphor. A plant stamen can resemble a thread. The rudiments of an entity, that early stamina, are its foundation: the warp of a weave. And stamina was once understood as one’s inherent makeup, measuring out how long one would live, like those threads of the Fates.

In the 2016 election, nothing has seem fated – except for the stamina we’ve all shown in making it this far in what continues to be an unprecedented presidential campaign.

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The winged victory of “Nice”

“Words cannot express,” our leaders begin their remarks on the horrific attack in Nice, France. The carnage shocks us and saddens us into the disbelief of speechlessness. But just as words fail us, we also turn to them to make sense, some sort of sense, of tragedy. So it is with the word Nice, whose origin may raise us up, if in the smallest of ways.

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Nike endures, Nice endures: The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Image © 2014 Musée du Louvre, Philippe Fuzeau.  


Ancient Greek mariners from Phocaea, on the Aegean Turkey, founded colonies along France’s Mediterranean coast called Massalía, now Marseilles. As far as we know, some Massaliotes battled a neighboring tribe of an Italo-Celtic people, the Ligures, in 350 BC. The Greeks won, and founded a new city there. To commemorate their victory, they named their new settlement Nikaia, honoring their goddess of victory. Her name was Nike.

In addition to personifying the goddess, the word nike, or νίκη in ancient Greek, meant “victory,” including victory in battle, Olympic games, and in more general undertakings. The further roots are unknown; some suggest a pre-Greek origin, others look to an earlier Greek word meaning “strife” or “to quarrel.” Latin rendered Nikaia as Nicaea, which became Nice in French.

Nike lives on, of course, in the athletic brand, but also in Nicholas, which literally means “victory-people.” It joins nike with laos, “people.” Laos often referred to “common people,” and it gives English lay, as in a layperson.

The ancient Greeks wrote of “trim-ankled” Nike, who drove Zeus’ own chariot with her renowned speed and spread her iconic wings over victors in the battlefield. Her wings are still outspread in her famed sculpture in the Louvre, where she greet visitors as The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Her wings are outspread, too, over all the people of her namesake, Nice.

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Why is something “hermetically” sealed?

As the 2016 presidential campaign heats up, so do the attacks.

Campaigning for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, days before the New Hampshire primaries, Bill Clinton characterized her opponent, Bernie Sanders, as so cut off from reality that it’s as if he’s living in a “hermetically sealed box.”

Talk about feeling the Bern.

Such a box is “airtight,” as we know. But why do we call such a seal a hermetic seal? It turns out the former president drew his fire – er, etymological fire– from alchemy.

A floor tile of Hermes Trismegistus from the Siena Cathedral in Italy. Image from Wikimedia Commons


Neoplatonists and other early mystics identified the Egyptian god, Thoth, with the Greek god, Hermes, and called him Hermes Trismegistus, a god of science and art. They also believed Hermes Trismegistus authored the esoteric Corpus Hermeticum, among other names. This was a body of writings on philosophical and theosophical topics, including such magical ones as bringing statues to life. His name means “Hermes Thrice-Great.”

The Corpus Hermeticum essentially founded Western alchemy, whose metal-melting distillations required completely sealing off glass tubes. The invention of this process – and its name – alchemists credited to Hermes Trismegistus, who knew the secrets of their occult art. In Medieval Latin, Hermes was rendered into an adjective hermeticus, yielding English’s hermetical and hermetic.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds records of various hermetic terminology in the 17th century. Both Hermes’ seal and hermetically are dated to English clergyman Thomas Tymme’s 1605 translation of 16th-century French physician Joseph du Chesne’s The Practice of Chymicall and Hermeticall Physicke.

For Hermes’ seal, Tymme writes: “Hermes seale…take the red hote tonges, and therewith wring or nippe the toppe close together; whereby it shall be closed as if it had no vent before.” Tymme uses the adverbial form in a different passage: “A smal cappe or cover, with his receiver, strongly and well luted, hermetically closed rounde about.” Such seals were usually achieved through soldering, welding, or fusion. “Hermetic seal” and “hermetically sealed” as such the OED dates later in the 1600s.

Tymme’s work, it’s worth noting, also provides the OED’s earliest evidence for the word chemistry. And alchemy, so much the precursor to modern chemistry, was once known as the hermetic science.

Now, the ultimate origin of the Greek Hermes is sealed off to us, so to speak. The god’s name, though, also lives on in another English words: hermaphrodite. In Greek mythology, Hermes and Aphrodite had a son, the handsome Hermaphroditos. The water nymph Salmacis fell so deeply in love with him, according to one version of the myth, that she wished the two joined into one. The gods granted her wish, hence this word variously applied to something or someone with both male and female parts.

Folk etymology erroneously connects the Hermes to hermeneutic, I’ll add while we’re on the topic. That word derives from the Greek for “interpreter.”

So, the phrase hermetically sealed looks to alchemy for its origin – so, too, I suspect, will some of the presidential candidates as they try to push on for the nomination after the New Hampshire results come in.

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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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The secret of *nem-

Last post, we saw that the math in aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. But two other words I’ve recently covered, numb and nimble, may indeed be all about them, if we do some etymological accounting of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root, *nem-.

Crunching the etymological numbers.
Crunching the etymological numbers. “Calculator.” Ink and ballpoint pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


To review, both numb and nimble derive from an Old English verb, nim, functioning much like today’s take, which supplanted it in Middle English. For the ancient root of this nim, Indo-European scholars have reconstructed the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *nem-, which meant “to assign,” “to allot,” or, like nim, “to take,” thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots’ gloss. (Compare the nominal use of take in English). This root evolved in some interesting ways across some of the Indo-European languages, eventually emerging in some other English words.  Let’s start with Greek.

Heaven and earth 

Angus Deaton won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics. A rare astronomical event, the Super Blood Moon, recently captivated us all. Both economy and astronomy derive from Greek: The former literally means “household management,” astronomy “star arrangement.” Ancient Greek had νόμος (nomos), with widely various meanings of “law,” “custom,” “usage,” and even “song.” But these, according to the great philological work of Liddell and Scott, were metaphorical usages of nomos’ earliest meaning: “a feeding-place for cattle” and, by extension, “pasture” and “food.”

How do we get from the earth to the stars? Nomos is formed from a verb νέμειν (nemein), also deriving from that PIE *nemmeaning “to deal out,” “distribute,” or “manage.” The connecting sense is of something allotted, as for a particular purpose, like a pasture or a dwelling, which one then must maintain, or something divided up in a particular way, as in a melody or a constellation.

The Greek nemein exacts further etymological dues, so to speak, in nemesis. In ancient Greece, this word named an important concept, personified in the form of the goddess Nemesis. Liddell and Scott’s Greek lexicography is again helpful in defining the word (emphasis original): nemesis is “distribution of what is due; hence, a righteous assignment of anger, wrath at anything unjust, just resentment,” particularly “indignation at undeserved good fortune.”

In these days of extreme inequality, whose complexity and urgency Angus Deaton is measuring, some might say we could use a little nemesis in the historic sense of the word. Of course, we have plenty of nemeses in today’s sense, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates as a North American usage in the 1930s.

Ranging ranges

Now, let’s wander to ancient Rome. Certain people have a roaming allotment, shall we say; people whose flocks or herds graze far and wide for their pasture. We might call them nomads. The Romans did, originally referring to certain Arabic pastoral tribes, the Nomades, or Numidians. The name is ultimately num – I mean taken – from that Greek nomos.

Economists, we know, are quiet adept with numbers. The word number, from the Latin numerus and picking up a b (much in the way a word like numb did) as it passed into English from the French, might also derive from that PIE *nem-. The innumerable meanings of this derivative in English are simply too many in number to enumerate; you might never be number after that math.

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It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and regions along the Gulf Coast. This past month, many news organizations have been reflecting on Katrina – and lessons we’ve learned from it – as the region continues to recover and rebuild. Are there any lessons in the origin of the word hurricane?

"Hurricane." A Taino depiction of of storm goddess Guabancex. Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Hurricane.” A depiction of the swirling-armed Taíno storm goddess, Guabancex, who commanded the ferocious storms. Ink on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the earliest evidence of hurricane actually comes in two forms: furacane and haurachana. These words appear in British scholar Richard Eden’s 1555 translation of some important historical works that chronicle Spain’s exploration – er, colonization – of the Americas. One of the works, Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s De orbe novo decades, gives the Spanish huracán; the other, Oviedo’s La natural hystoria de las Indias, gives furacán.

Why were there two forms? In a phonological process called debuccalization, Spanish changed certain word-initial Latin f’s to h’s around the 16th century. So, Latin’s facere (“to do”) became Spanish’s hacerfabulari (“to say”) became hablar. But huracán/furacán aren’t from Latin, though the pair documents subsequent switching of and f spread by the sound shift. Huracán/furacán, rather, come from the Caribbean.

Indigenous to the Caribbean were the Arawak people, including a subgroup, the Taíno, who inhabited the Greater Antilles. Spanish colonization decimated their population, but not without first taking some language, of course. In Taíno mythology, the anger of the goddess Guabancex unleashed powerful storms, or huraca’n – sometimes personified itself as an evil god of chaos, possibly derived from a powerful Mayan creator deity of wind, fire, and storms, Hurakan. Guabancex commanded Guatabá, who brought thunder and lightning, and Coatrisquie, who brought floods, forming a formidable trio that wreaked meteorological havoc.

Very sadly, I can’t pull down a dictionary of Taíno or Mayan etymology from my shelf, so I can’t speak to the deeper origins of huraca’n or Hurakan with any certainty. But the Mayan Hurakan is said to mean “one-legged,” as he was so physically manifested, while some Taíno indigenous culture and heritage websites break down huraca’n as “center of the wind” (hura, “wind”; c’an, “center”).

Whatever the particular origin of hurricane, both Hurakan and Guabancex wielded the destructive power of hurricanes, but both were also associated with creation. Hurakan helped create the world in Mayan cosmology. Some consider Guabancex the destructive face of the Taíno supreme being, complementary to the creative forces of nature.

Neither etymology nor mythology can restore New Orleans as it was before Hurricane Katrina. Nor do their insights necessarily bring any consolation. But perhaps they can remind us of some fundamental lessons of nature – human nature included – that mythology’s dualities capture so well: Out of destruction can come the chance to make new, to make better. Out of destruction can come creation.

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Well over three billion miles from home, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been sending back a treasure trove of images and information in its historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto. A treasure trove indeed, if we look to the etymology of Pluto.

Trans-Neputnian. "Gem." Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Trans-Neputnian. “Gem.” Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Of gods and dogs

American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in February 1930. With the discovery a sensation worldwide, the observatory took suggestions for the new celestial body’s name. A young student of classical mythology captivated by the new finding, 11-year-old Venetia Burney in Oxford, England suggested the name Pluto after the Greek god of the underworld. Her grandfather, a former Oxford librarian, passed her suggestion along to an astronomy professor at the university, who then cabled it the United States. In March, the name won the observatory’s vote, so it goes, as the god Pluto is concealed deep in his underworld just as the planet hides deep in the solar system. Additionally, Pluto’s first two letters nod to the observatory’s founder’s initials, Percival Lowell.

Walt Disney’s debuted his Pluto in 1931’s Moose Hunt. We don’t fully know the origin of Mickey’s dog’s name, but many suggest that Disney was inspired by the Pluto-mania of the day. Plutomania, or “the obsession with wealth,” is a rather different craze.

The root of all Pluto

In Greek mythology, Pluto (ΠλούτωνPloutōn) is an alternate name and identity for Hades, god of the underworld. He was associated – and confused – with Ploutos (Πλοῦτος), the Greek god of wealth, a domain Pluto himself was also known to rule over. See, riches like silver and gold come from Pluto’s territory: under the earth. Further, Pluto’s wife, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, brought with her other treasures of the earth – grain – when she seasonally emerged from the underworld.

Pluto passed from Greek to Latin, entering into English as early as 1330 to refer to the Roman figuration of this god.

Greek has πλοῦτος (ploutos), meaning “wealth” and “riches.” The sense of ploutos, then, may originally been “overflowing,” as the American Heritage Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European Roots posits. Greek lexicographers Liddell and Scott connect ploutos to a verb πίμπλημι (pimplēmi), “to fill full.” The OED proposes a connection to πλεῖν, “to swim” or “to float.” These forms point our probe towards that Pluto of etymology, Proto-Indo-European, with an ultimate root *pleu, “to flow.” This root also yields English’s flow and flood – and fly, as in that very flyby of Pluto, if an etymology was ever to orbit itself. Via Latin, pluvial, “relating to rain,” is also so descended.

Lexicographer Eric Partridge suggests polus (πολύς), “many” or “much,” source of English’s prefix poly-. This is related to a Proto-Indo-European root that gives English full.

Of gods and men

News Horizons is the first flyby of Pluto, which is so incomprehensibly far away. Its images and information have certainly enriched our understanding of this dwarf planet, its moons, and its neck of the solar system. But what’s more, it has enriched our sense of what is possible, bestowing on professional astronomers and dreamy stargazers alike the riches of perspective: how immense the feats of man’s imagination, how tiny our place in the universe. If only that sense of wonder is what governed us under a plutocracy.


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Dense, shiny meat removal: It’s “Mardi Gras”

Before observing the fasts and penances of Lent, today many Catholics (and other revelers) will celebrate with the feasts and parties of Mardi Gras. As you probably well know, Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday,” but why do the French call Mardi Gras Mardi Gras?

"Mardi Gras." Doodle by me.
“Mardi Gras.” Doodle by me.


The French name for “Tuesday” and with an earlier form of marsdi, mardi is derived from the Latin diēs Martis, “Day of Mars,” the Roman god of war. In fact, the English Tuesday is a loan translation of this very diēs Martis, as Germanic tribes modeled their names for the days of the week on the Romans’. Tuesday comes from the Old English Tiwesdæg, or “Day of Tiw,” a Germanic god of war considered an equivalent to Mars. But the Romans weren’t original, for Martis diēs is itself adopted from the Greek’s own ἡμέρα Ἄρεος (hemera Areos), or “Day of Ares,” the Greek war god.

Based on various astrological considerations and astronomical calculations, these Greco-Roman days of the week were named after planets, which were named after gods, though the particular seven-day concept is rooted in Jewish–and yet more ancient–traditions.

Etymologists can’t quite marshal up a secure origin for Mars–few origins ever are secure, really–but many posit roots in the name of an ancient Italic deity. Diēs, however, is reconstructed in *dyeu-, the Proto-Indo-European root for “to shine”–which, in one of those scintillating surprises of word histories, ultimately bestowed Tiw, Zeus, Jupiter, and yet other deities their very names.


Maybe some celebrants eat foie gras on Mardi Gras. The second element of both noun phrases are the same. The French gras is from the Latin crassus, which could mean “thick,” “solid,” “stout,” or just plain “fat,” as well “dense” not only in composition but also in intelligence. Crassus yielded Late Latin forms referring to “animal fat,” hence the French gras and, eventually, the English grease. Crass is also derived from crassus.

Fat can be quite a crass term and foie gras a crass practice, so, whether you are keeping up on your New Year’s resolution to lose a few pounds or fighting against animal cruelty, perhaps you will carnival on this Carnival. Contrary to popular etymology, carnival is not from the Latin carnem valē or farewell, flesh” but believed to be from carnem levāre, “to remove flesh,” referring to that Lenten sacrifice of meat. An intermediary Italian form, carnelevale, helps explain the the evolution and later confusion.

From Latin’s levāre (which could also mean to “raise,” among other meanings) we also get levitateleverlevylevee, the Levant, and  levity. If and whether you are masked, costumed, or beaded on this Mardi Gras, I hope your Carnival festivities are full of levity–and I hope your feasts ultimately weigh you down.

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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.

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