January 15, 2014

Word History of Bear

The Latin word for bear is ursus. You can recognize that root in the name of the star constellation Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. The Sanskrit word is rkshas. (The Germanic languages, and Latin-based languages derive from Indo-European. Indo-European is a theoretical reconstruction of the language from languages we do have a written record of. Sanskrit is the closest written language to Indo-European we know.)

But the English word for bear is not related to the Latin or Sanskrit root at all. Fear influenced the shaping of of the word bear. Germanic tribes were afraid of bears. It was taboo to use the animal's actual name. They called the bear beron or brown one (Proto-Germanic).

I learned this during my college course on the history of the English language. That's when I wrote a poem about the word bear.

A child taunted the younger ones
Yelling, “Ursu! Ursu! Ursu!”
The younger ones scattered abroad
Shrieking aloud, “Curse you! Curse you!”

The brown one lurked in the forest,
Ready to pounce on the slow soon dead.
His eyes traveled from child to child
Then head to head of the most well-fed.