Alright folks, time for some fun trivia! I’ve been working on my French, through Duolingo, and I was recently on the “animals” module. I was having trouble with l’ours which is French for the bear. It’s such a different word from the English word for the animal I just couldn’t keep the connection in my head. Wondering what the two could possibly have in common, I naturally looked up bear in the etymological dictionary.
The entry started off simple enough:
Old English bera “bear,” from Proto-Germanic *beron, literally “the brown (one)”
It then went on to say:
Greek arktos and Latin ursus retain the PIE [Proto-Indo-European, a linguistic reconstruction of a hypothesized ancient common language] root word for “bear” (*rtko; see Arctic), but it is believed to have been ritually replaced in the northern branches because of hunters’ taboo on names of wild animals
Umm… what? Just casually throwing out this “hunters’ taboo” with no explanation… they totally lost me! So I googled some more and came across this very interesting article:
The Bear on Thegns of Mercia, “UK Midlands-based group dedicated to exploring Anglo-Saxon and ‘Viking-Age’ history 449 – 1066 AD”
The Hunter’s Taboo is fascinating, for words hold power. What we call a thing influences the way we think of a thing. Thus it is believed that in Northern Europe, Bronze-Age hunters came to believe that using the bear’s true name allowed the animal to hear and comprehend the hunter. This would allow the bear to either elude the hunter or come seeking him, who would then become the hunted. The bear was the only really dangerous animal in the great Germanic forest, so to reduce this danger, men changed the rules. The original name of the bear, probably meaning “dangerous” or “destroyer” was replaced by a euphemism. To the Bronze Age hunter a 20 stone brown bear was certainly a force of destruction. Calling it ‘the brown one’ / “Bruin” magically dis-empowered it : the ‘Destroyer’ became a ‘Teddy-Bear’! So was the original word lost.
In the Slavic lands, a similar taboo deformation resulted in the Russian name медведь (from *medu-ed) meaning ‘honey-eater’. This compares with our familiar Beowulf which literally means ‘Bee-wolf’ – an obvious poetic euphemism for Bear, in light of the bears notorious liking for honey. Beowulf is ‘bear-like’ in his great strength.
Of all the animals, the most sacred was the bear, whose real name was never uttered out loud. The bear (“karhu” in Finnish) was seen as the embodiment of the forefathers, and for this reason it was called by many euphemisms: “mesikämmen” (“mead-paw”), “otso” (“wide brow”), “kontio” (“dweller of the land”), “lakkapoika” (“cloudberry boy”).
Digging a little deeper, I came across an old article hosted on JSTOR, “Taboos on Animal Names,” by M. B. Emeneau in the journal Language in 1948. He argues that the taboo is more than just a “hunter’s” taboo, that it has a religious element as well.
Some sure cases of linguistic displacement due to ‘religious taboo’ are known. The best-known example is probably that of the Hebrew disuse of the word for ‘God’ written with with consonantal outline YHWH. It is at least possible that some of the instances of taboo animal names belong to communities whose religions are of the type that may attribute to many, if not all, animals some share of the supernatural. If, then, a linguistic taboo operates within a system of this kind, the instances of displacement of animal names would not be due to a ‘hunters’ taboo’ pure and simple… but to ‘religious taboo’… the element in our definition above, viz. that the animal may overhear and understand , is predicated on the animal’s sharing in divine attributes, which we (rationalistic Westerners) should call ‘non-natural’.
He goes on with several caveats, explaining that this theory certainly doesn’t account for every case, that some word displacements can be attributed to factors like technical jargon or class distinction, and so forth.
But in emphasis against a simple ‘hunters’ taboo’ he explains further:
classification of certain animals as ‘repugnant’, with the implication that perhaps, though not probably, this might have been a reason for taboo, should be rejected at once. Whether the animal is dangerous or harmless, unpleasant or pleasant, is not a criterion relevant to its being regarded as supernatural.
He humbly concludes:
In most historical instances where taboo is suspected to be a possible factor in determining obsolescence of animal names, we shall be plagued by ignorance. Where we can, we ought to look for evidences of religious attitudes towards the animal in question. When we cannot find them, it seems better to own up to ignorance rather than to attribute to the inaccessible historical community psychological attitudes that may be ours but that we have no guarantee were theirs.
I think this was the 1948 equivalent of a sick burn! Take that! you hunters’ taboo hypothesizers you!
It isn’t 1948 any more, however, and here on this blog, I like to keep things a little less dry, and a little more hip, so of course I’ve got to tie all this information into Harry Potter! The name taboo on Lord Voldemort, aka He-Who-Must-Not-Named, alias You-Know-Who, is a little more familiar to my generation than I-Am-Who-I-Am.
But Harry, like the hypothesizers of the 1940s, seems to have trouble understanding the name taboo. From the very beginning he says the name with near impunity. He himself suffers nothing by naming the entity, while those around him, even other Muggle-raised witches and wizards his age, fear to mention him. I postulate that this is because Harry saw the taboo as only a hunter’s taboo, because Harry was always more connected with Lord Voldemort on an extremely personal level. To Harry he was simply the man who killed Harry’s parents. No complications, nothing extra, no supernatural element. And as M. B. Emeneau postulates, the hunter’s element itself is not enough to make the taboo stick.
We see a similar relationship between Lord Voldemort and Dumbledore, too. He was never the Dark Lord in Dumbledore’s eyes, but remained, always, Tom Riddle, wayward orphan.
So why, then, did the taboo stick for the rest of the wizarding world? Because to the rest of the wizarding world, he was more than just a man, and he was more than just a wizard. He was the most powerful and most EVIL wizard the world had ever seen. And it’s this element of evil that places him squarely on the side of supernatural. He crossed more than just the divide between a good and bad wizard, as Grindewald before him did; he is conceived of in terms of good and evil, which, if you subscribe to Nietzsche’s theories, is an entirely different ballgame. No one (except maybe Dumbledore) knew exactly what he had done to make himself so evil (making the Horcruxes, or as he himself put it, going farther than any one to pursue immortality), but we get the sense that everyone realized he was something less or worse than human. Or in the case of his most dedicated followers, who saw him as both more and better than human.
It’s this element of evil, of the supernatural (even by the standards of the already supernatural wizarding world) that made the taboo decidedly a religious taboo, one that Emeneau argues actually has staying power.
And THEN, in the ultimate ironic twist, it is only when Lord Voldemort’s name, through magical means, literally BECOMES a hunter’s taboo, when saying his names allows him to track you down and kill you, that Harry, who has never been affected by the religious taboo, is forced to succumb to the pressure and use the euphemisms.
So there you have it, obscure naming habits of prehistory and explanatory theories from the 40s still able to affect pop culture today! I think it goes without saying that bearing all of this in mind (if you will), I should no longer have any trouble remember the what l’ours means.
Emeneau, M. B. “Taboos on Animal Names.” Language 24.1 (1948): 56-63. Web.
I highly recommend signing up for a free JSTOR account! You don’t get access to every article for free, but it’s still a great resource.