Saturday, November 05, 2022

Why Do We Have Two Words For Bear?

      In fact, we have three words for bear, which holds part of the story: bear, bruin, and (when speaking of things pertaining or similar to bears) ursine.

     The last word goes back to the Indo-European root word, and versions of it show up in the languages of European countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea: places that are not, generally, bear country.  Go wandering through Northern Europe and towards Russia and the words they use are euphemisms, most of which mean either "brown" or (if you're speaking a Slavic language), "honey-eater."  Both of the common English words trace back to "brown," though by different paths.

     How come?  Up in bear country, places where the animals fatten up before winter and emerge ravenous in the spring, bears are a particular and well-known terror, far more so back when humanity had only spears, knives and axes to use against them.  An animal like that, you don't want to use its right name: it might show up when called.

     A powerful superstition back when fire and chipped flint were high technology.  These days, we've made it real.

     A friend I won't name on a social media platform I won't name came up with a cutting insight into a well-known and polarizing figure (not a politician).  A very well-known commentator with a lot of followers shared my friend's analysis -- at which point my friend suggested to me that a pile-on was inevitable.  The nature of social media is such that to mention a well-known figure by name is to summon them, along with their fans.

     We've made our own bears, dangerous creatures -- and we've given them the magical power they were only feared to have back when social media consisted of telling stories around the fire in the dark of night.

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