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…

Words for “alphabet” in ancient languages

I remember when I first realised that the English word “alphabet” came from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet – alpha and beta – and somehow I felt like I’d cracked a kind of etymological code. But the list of brilliant names for alphabet terms just goes on. The word “alphabet”  is of…

Why Historians and Linguists Should Read the Ibis Trilogy

Historians and linguists of the world: you should be reading Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy – Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and the recently released Flood of Fire. (For those who have already started Flood of Fire, don’t worry, there are no spoilers ahead.) I’m hoping the historians don’t need too much convincing. Ghosh’s trilogy…

Two Latin words for elephant

There are two words for “elephant” in Latin, and both have to do with Greeks in Italy. The first one, elephantus (or sometimes elephas or elephans), is fairly straightforward. It’s used in Latin from about the second century BC, and it’s a borrowing of the Greek word ὁ ἐλέφας, –αντος. That’s the normal Greek word for both African and Indian elephants, and is…