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Taboo language turned the wolf into a monster (nautil.us)
12 points by dnetesn 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 13 comments

We literally don’t know the oldest word(s) for “bear” as a result of this sort of practice.

bear means “the brown one”. The common explanation is that bears were either objects of cultic veneration or seen as kinda human or some combination thereof, so their true name was hidden — as a measure of respect or fear or honor. or some combination of the three.

Allusive and indirect names then got applied to “bear” too — a common scholarly opinion is that “Beowulf” is “Bee-hunter”, a bear. (Though opinions differ there).


> We literally don’t know the oldest word(s) for “bear” as a result of this sort of practice.

Your link doesn't support this. Latin and Greek are supposed to have preserved the Indo-European word; e.g. Spanish oso today descends directly from the word you're referring to.

Of course we don't know the oldest word(s) for anything, because the information is lost over time. Proto-Indo-European is as far back as we can reconstruct, but it's not like the ancestors of the Indo-Europeans couldn't speak.

In Russian it's 'medved', i.e. the one who knows about the honey ('mead-wit' would be the exact English cognate).

I'm afraid that is a folk etymology, the second part means "to eat", related to contemporary Russian есть "jest'". The /v/ sound actually comes from the short /u/ at the end of the word medъ, usually denoted with the letter ъ, probably through an intermediate /w/. The yer, ъ, became silent in Russian and was removed from the orthography in 1918, but a relic of it remained like this in the middle of the word medved'.

TIL. Ok, so it's "honey eater" then. The point is it's clearly a taboo avoidance term, not a derivation of "arctos" which was the real word for bear.

is it “knows” or “eats” or “finds”? i’ve heard all three

"Know" in the biblical sense.

ved = 'know' in Slavic, comes from this PIE root: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-Eur...

Literally the same source suggests that "honey-eater" is a folk etymology, probably false: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Slavic/m...

I've heard this story a few times now, and every time I hear it I question it a little bit more.

Swedish has cognate "ulv" which is synonymous to "varg". It's not used much anymore, but I think it fell into disuse fairly recently. Reading fairy tales from 1800's and early 1900's you are bound to encounter it.

And alternate spelling "Ulf" is a top 50 first name in Sweden.

In summary I don't think a taboo is an explanation in this case.

EDIT: Oh and the word for werewolf is varulv.

In the case of Latin, the word for fox is vulpus, which is a direct evolution of the indo-european root. In this case, the problem is less of a taboo word than of an appropriation of the sense to a different animal.

There's a comment on the story itself that says this, with a reply pointing out that it's not "vulpus" but "volpes", which evolved from a slightly different proto-Indo-European root.

In Hungarian it's a similar situation: the usual word for wolf is "Farkas", which means "with tail", i.e. "tailed one".

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