From Oscan hirpus to English hearse

Myriapod Productions have released a rather lovely video in their “Mysteries of Vernacular” series tracing the etymology of the English word hearse back to the Oscan word hirpus, ‘wolf’. (This was discovered and sent to me by my friend Julia, so many thanks to her! I have included some pictures of coins below, because she likes coins.) This Oscan etymology is not in the OED (though it agrees with tracing hearse back to Latin hirpex, but I found some confirmation on Etymonline, which is normally pretty reliable for these things.


Hirpus is a rather interesting word anyway, and by complete coincidence we were talking about it in a seminar a couple of weeks ago. It’s known to us mainly because the Greeks and Romans called one of the Oscan ‘tribes’ the Hirpini – I’m not sure of the top of my head if we have any evidence of the Hirpini calling themselves this, or at least not until quite late. Strabo, whose book The Geography basically describes the peoples and regions of the ancient world one by one, mentions the Hirpini (5.4.12). He says that they are Samnites, i.e. Oscan speakers, and that they take their name from their word for wolf.

The Latin cognate of this word is hircus (and Varro lists a ‘Sabine’ version fircus too – it was this ‘Sabine’ word that we were talking about at the seminar – ‘Sabine’ is a bit of  slippery character, let’s put it that way). But in Latin, this word means not ‘wolf’ but ‘male goat’ or ‘buck’ – or, pleasingly, ‘a goatish smell, the rank smell of armpits’ (thank you, Lewis and Short).

So why the meaning difference in Latin and Oscan? Well, the root means originally something like ‘the shaggy one’, which could be applied to a number of different animals. This makes it look like the word ‘wolf’ may have been subject to taboo replacement in some varieties of Oscan – this is a common process by which the name of a dangerous animal is replaced with a more benign-sounding word. (This is why bear in English derives from brown, and not from the Indo-European word for bear.) The original Oscan word for wolf would be lupus which, incidentally, was borrowed into Latin and is where we get lupine and so on.

Do we know 100% that hirpus meant ‘wolf’ in Oscan rather than some other animal? Not really. We probably have to take Strabo’s word for it on that one. But perhaps it is rather more likely that you would call yourself the ‘wolf people’ rather than the ‘goat people’. It all gets a bit confusing though, because of course the wolf is the symbol of Rome as well.


Social War Italia coinage with Oscan inscription, c. 90 BC. The image shows a bull (symbol of Italy) trampling a wolf (symbol of Rome).


In any case, I will now be adding hearse to my (rather short) mental list of (possible) Oscan-derived words in English. Strange, really, that two different Sabellian words for ‘wolf’ seem to have made it, one way or another, into English.



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