The creators of Pokémon didn’t invent anything: the collective imagination has always been populated by hybrid animals of varying degrees of strangeness and fear, often from Greco-Roman mythology or ancient legends. Some of them have remained very popular thanks to contemporary fiction: movies and video games are not short of unicorns, dragons and other winged snakes. The origin of their names, however, is often unknown. I propose you a small etymological deciphering of my ten favorite curious beasts, in a totally subjective order of preference! In a next top 10, I will also talk about half-animal half-human creatures, like the centaur, the sphinx and the mermaid!
Before it became all the rage with kids under 12, the unicorn, a horse or deer with a long front horn, was a symbol of power and purity in medieval legends. Its name comes from the Latin unicornis “which has a horn”, which in English became unicorn. In Italian, unicornis became unicorno, which became deformed into alicorno. And as if a deformation was not enough, the French borrowed it with a bad cut of the article: the alicorno was taken for the unicorno, which thus became the unicorn… In the vocabulary of the economy, unicorn has been used for a few years to designate another fabulous animal: a start-up valued at more than one billion euros!
When you talk about a chimerical idea, you may not know that you are referring to Greek mythology. Before it was used to designate an unattainable project, an illusion, chimera was the name of a fictitious animal with the head and chest of a lion, the belly of a goat, the tail of a dragon, and which spat flames. The word, which comes from the Greek khimaira, did not take on the abstract meaning we know until the 16th century, before giving the derivative adjective chimeric. Now you know!
On the list of Heracles’ work, before a great cleaning and two raids, was the slaughter of the hydra of Lerna, an aquatic animal whose name comes from the Latin hydra, borrowed from the Greek hudra, derived from hudôr “water”. The task turned out to be difficult: each time Heracles cut off one of the monster’s heads, it grew back several. Our hero then had the brilliant idea to burn the scars to prevent the secondary heads from growing back, and to bury the main head, reputedly indestructible. By allusion to the myth, hydra later became the name of a very real animal, a freshwater polyp that also has the ability to regenerate the parts of its body that are cut. But no mythological character, as far as we know, has ever tried it.
Imagine a kind of snake with bat wings and pig legs. This friendly animal is the guivre, a legendary creature of the Middle Ages. Its name has remained alive in the heraldic vocabulary, where it designates the representation of this beast or of a simple snake. Guivre comes from the Latin vipera, to which the viper, a real snake, also owes its name. In some regions, the guivre was known under the variant vouivre, at the origin of the title of the novel of Marcel Aymé, La Vouivre, published in 1943.
A fabulous animal related to the snake, often represented with wings and claws, the dragon owes its name to the Latin draco. It is a loan from the Greek drakôn “snake”, from the verb derkomai “I look”, because of the animal’s fixed gaze. Initially referring to the Greco-Latin and Christian culture, it also allows, from the 18th century, to name in French a comparable creature specific to the Chinese culture. The drakkar, a famous Viking ship, bears a name of the same family: it was so called because of the sculpted emblem depicting a dragon on its bow. But dragon is also linked to the name of one of the most famous characters of literature and cinema: of the same origin, the Romanian name of the dragon is dracul, which inspired Bram Stoker to name Count Dracula!
The astrological sign and the constellation of Capricorn are named after a fabulous animal with the head and body of a goat and the tail of a fish, which Jupiter himself would have placed in the sky. The word comes from the Latin capricornus, from caper “goat” and cornu “horn”, formed from the Greek aigokereus “with goat’s horn”. So much for the origin of the word. As for the professional or love future of the natives of Capricorn, you are not in the right section…
In the folkloric processions of French Provence and Spain, one can see the effigy of a kind of six-legged dragon, with the shell of a turtle and a head that is half human and half leonine: it is the tarasque. In the region of Tarascon, it is said that the beast devoured travelers who crossed the Rhone, until Saint Martha tamed the beast and the villagers killed it. The beast then gave its name to the city… This is pure legend, because the opposite happened: the tarasque was named after Tarascon, which probably comes from a very old root, tar-, meaning “stone, rock”.
If you’ve ever been sent on a wild goose chase, you’ve been taken for a fool! The wild boar is an imaginary animal that is sent to hunt a gullible person in order to make fun of them. It has been given various forms, sometimes a bird, sometimes a quadruped whose two legs were much shorter than the other two in order to be able to stand more easily on the side of a mountain. Its name is attested since the XIXth century and we find several variants according to the regions. But if some etymologists link it to the adjective dalu “silly, stupid”, its exact origin remains mysterious…
The catoblepas is an animal as bizarre as its name, which comes from the Greek katoblepein “to look down”. It is indeed a kind of buffalo with a slender neck that carries its head with difficulty, so that it always leans towards the ground. Good for us because, according to the legend, whoever crosses its gaze dies immediately! Quoted in antiquity by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, the catoblepas has become the symbol of stupidity in literature. In his novel Des éclairs, Jean Echenoz says of the pigeon that it is “even more stupid than a catoblepas”. That’s saying a lot!
Rather than when the chickens have teeth, Rabelais preferred the expression to the coming of the coquecigrues, that is to say… never, because this bird is totally invented! The origin of the word is obscure. It evokes the names of different animals: rooster, stork and crane. The linguist Pierre Guiraud suggests a more complex formation which would give to coquecigrue the literal meaning of “waiting for nothing”. In any case, coquecigrue has become a literary synonym for baloney and nonsense, used in connection with absurd ideas. Well placed in a social conversation, it always has an effect!