Myths and legends have more influence over our modern language than you might think. The word "panic," for instance, goes straight back to the Greek god Pan, who was a bit of a trickster, specializing in cavorting with nymphs and freaking out humans who strayed into his forests. Atlas, meanwhile, derives from the figure of Atlas, the man who apparently held up the entire world on his shoulders, while "fury" comes from the Furies, who were Greek figures pursuing anybody who'd committed capital wrongs, to pull them apart with their bare hands. Charming. But it doesn't end with the Greeks. Folklore and myth from many parts of the world inflect everyday English, from butter-stealing fairies to hallucinating Norse bear-men. Why isn't there an emoji for that?!
The really interesting thing about etymology is that words you think seem completely rational, even sweet, end up with bizarre, often frightening origins. To "pine" for somebody nowadays means to feel blue without their smile and post dramatic updates on Facebook about how much you miss them, but its origins reveal that it was actually meant to be pretty serious: it comes from the Old English pinian , for pain or torture. Long distance relationships are, etymologically speaking, just meant to feel like hell.
Here are five words that seem, on the surface, to be modern, up-to-date concepts — but actually have meanings diving deep into cultural legends about spiritual beings, demons, and other things that go bump in the night.
Next time you wake with night sweats after yet another dream that you have to take the SATs again (is this anybody else's recurring nightmare?), be comforted by the fact that people have experienced these dreams for thousands of years — and that the word for them has a seriously creepy origin.
Some Brits believe that the "night-mare" was meant to refer to a kelpie, a kind of horse-shaped demon spirit in British folklore that would kill or drown any riders unwise enough to mount it. However, the "mare" in nightmare is a bit more horrifying than that (yes, it's possible). It doesn't actually refer to horses at all: it's from an Old English word for an incubus or female demon, who'd visit while you slept and attempt to suffocate you. Female nightmare-spirits show up in languages from Polish to Old Norse; the Irish refer to her as The Morrigan, almighty goddess of death and terror — and, yep, from the same origin word, "mare".
Sending an echo down a cave or empty place may seem weirdly beautiful, but the word has its origins in a particularly nasty Greek myth about unrequited love and very stupid nymphs. You likely know about Narcissus, the incredibly vain and beautiful young boy who was turned into a narcissus flower (or daffodil) to gaze at his reflection to his heart's content — but Echo, whose name was the foundation of the Greek ekhe ("to resound"), was a nymph who fell in love with him.
The Roman poet Ovid explained in his Metamorphoses that Echo lost her voice because she and her famous storytelling ability were used by the god Jupiter to distract his wife, Juno, while he got on with extramarital flings. Juno discovered the ruse, cursed the nymph, and Echo "was then deprived the use of speech, except to babble and repeat the words, once spoken, over and over." She then fell in love with Narcissus, who (being the prototypical narcissist) didn't love her back, and faded away in despair to merely a voice, which still responds when you yell at vacant places. It is, really, a very sad myth.
This is a contentious one, so don't take it as gospel, but it's still an interesting possible theory about one of the sweetest words in modern English. Some etymologies believe that "butterfly" is simply a transformation of the more sensible "flutter-by" as a description for the insect, but others believe there's a more distinct medieval origin, rooted in European folklore about The Good Folk, or fairies.
Modern ideas about fairies as benign sorts who live in flowers and sit on mushrooms are very far from the medieval conceptions of the word. Fay or Faerie were derived from words for Fate, and were seen as powerful, meddlesome parts of the world. Across Celtic countries, fairies (under various names, from boggarts to cluracaun) were blamed for malicious misadventure in rural communities, particularly souring milk and causing dogs to go lame. They were also in the habit of stealing butter in the middle of the night, hence the butterfly moniker.
Interestingly, stories about folkloric creatures stealing butter pop up in many countries, from the Isle of Man to Russia, Finland, and other Scandinavian countries. Some are benign and just like to churn the butter and give it back, but the Lapp people have the best one: the smiera-gatto, or butter cat, which would steal butter and bring it to whatever family it was staying with. Nasty but nice?
This one is technically cheating a bit, as the action it's based upon wasn't mythological at all. For the enemies of the ancient Norse, it was a regrettable and terrifying reality. What we now know as the idea of "going berserk" — completely losing control and probably destroying things — comes from a particular class of Norse warrior called the berserker who did just that in battle contexts. In other words, he went completely insane.
Berserkers got their name from the Old Norse for bear skin, indicating that they didn't wear armor into battle — they just charged. They pop up in many poems and epics about battles, usually talking about their bloodthirstiness, howling, inhuman strength and complete disregard for their own safety. Their courageous rage has been debated throughout history: some historians think that they actually entered into a kind of furious trance, possibly through the aid of some hallucinogenic substance that made them into fearsome warriors. The Norse themselves may have believed that the berserkers were quasi-godlike men who could harness the spirits of wolves or bears. Either way, having one charge at you was not going to end well.
The concept of a wake for the dead may seem like it wears its folkloric origins on its sleeve. You're stopping the dead from waking up, right? Wrong. "Wake," as it's used in the context of happening to a dead person, is derived from the Old English wacu, or watch. It's not about stopping the dead from waking: it's about watching them carefully in the interval before they're buried, to make sure nothing spooky happens to them.
Wakes happen all over the world, and in many cultures are seen as an integral part of the dead person's procession into the afterlife or next life. Some scholars believe that the practice of watching and celebrating over the body was actually meant, originally, to make the dead person feel better about having died, instead of coming back to seek revenge or cause havoc.
Other beliefs surrounding wakes indicate that this was the point where the soul was seen to be vulnerable; in the 16th century, for instance, all the mirrors in the house had to be covered while a body was watched, as the soul that had left the body might be trapped there and left vulnerable to the Devil. And some vigils seem to have been held to stop evil spirits actually taking away the dead person's body. What they'd do with it is now anybody's guess, but next time you're at a wake, remember to keep an eye out for any malevolent spirits who look inclined to start problems.