15 Commonly Used English Words With Fascinating Mythological Origins

Art by John Silva

Previously, we had talked about common English words with compelling historical origins that you may have missed out on from the annals of popular culture. Well, this time around, we have decided to take the route of mythology. To that end, quite incredibly, various myths (from around the world) have intrinsic ties to the evolution of some rather well-known English words. In that regard, let us take a gander at fifteen commonly used English words with often intriguing and sometimes grand mythological origins.

‘Avatar’ – Related To The Hindu Concept Of ‘Reincarnation’

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The term Avatar originally stems from the Hindu concept of a deliberate descent of a deity or god to Earth. In simpler terms, it is roughly synonymous to ‘incarnation’ in English; but a more literal translation would pertain to ‘manifestation’ (thus making the movie’s portrayal of altered meta-identities more accurate than you would think). As for the mythological relation, the Hindu God Vishnu (who forms one of the trinity of major gods within the religious system) is said to have ten avatars (Dashavatara), with Matsya, Lord Rama, Krishna and even Buddha considered among the earthly incarnations.

There is also a bit of foretelling in these mythical traditions, with the final tenth avatar, Kalki (‘Destroyer of Filth’), still to be born. This remorseless warrior riding a white horse will supposedly cleanse the world of its decadence and filth with his blazing sword. In essence, he is depicted as the harbinger of our end times in the current epoch; and the world will once again be ‘reset’ to the Utopian first age.

‘Cereal’ – Derived From The Name Of A Roman Goddess

Perhaps one of the most commonly uttered words by parents in the mornings of the Western Hemisphere, the term ‘Cereal’, originally meaning ‘edible grain’ (as used in the early 19th century) comes from French céréale. The French word, in turn, originates from Ceres, the Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Demeter. However, Ceres was not only the Roman goddess of agriculture but was also associated with grain crops, fertility and the general sense of ‘motherliness’. And what’s more, there was an ancient Roman festival of ‘Cerealia‘ that was held for 7 days in April in honor of Ceres. 

And on the occasion (according to Ovid’s Fasti), people used to tie blazing torches to the tails of foxes, who were then ceremoniously let loose into the expansive space later known as Circus Maximus – as a symbolic punishment for the creatures’ yearly forays into Roman croplands that were sacred to Ceres. (*also check this citation). The festival was also marked by what can be termed as collective cos-play with Roman women dressing in white attires to mimic Ceres, who supposedly wandered through the earth in lamentation for her abducted daughter Proserpine.

‘Clue’ – Related To A Key Element In The Myth Of Minotaur

One crucial episode from the famed myth of the Minotaur (discussed in detail in this article) pertains to how the Minoan princess Ariadne helps the Greek hero Theseus to slay the hybrid monster Minotaur. She does so by gifting a ball of thread to Theseus so that the hero can retrace his path from inside the labyrinth complex (by following the thread) after killing the bull-headed monster. Interestingly enough, the word ‘clue’, while Germanic in origin, is derived (or rather a revised spelling) from ‘clew’ – which referred to a ‘ball of thread or yarn’.

In essence, it is commonly believed that ‘clew’ alluded to the ancient Greek myth. And by the 16th century, the spelling was possibly revised to ‘clue’, while by the 1620s, ‘clue’ was used in a figurative sense to mean ‘something that points the way’. Over time, the relation to the labyrinth was relegated, and as such, ‘clue’, in terms of modern usage, means “a sign or some information that helps you to find the answer to a problem” – according to Cambridge Dictionary.

‘Echo’ – Derived From A Mythical Greek Nymph

Source: Prezi

In purely scientific terms, the Echo can be defined as the reflection of sound that arrives at the listener at an interval after the emanation of the original sound. And quite aptly, the term comes from its mythic counterpart which is also known as Echo. To that end, the mythological Echo was a beautiful yet old mountain nymph who used to distract Hera (the queen of Olympian Greek Gods) with fascinating tales, while Zeus (Hera’s husband and the king of the Olympians) sneakily used the opportunity to ‘take advantage’ of other alluring nymphs. 

As expected, the arrangement didn’t work for long, and Hera in her wrath cursed Echo that snatched away her enticing voice-only leaving her to dully repeat words that other people have shouted. Interestingly, Echo was also known to fall in love with the vain Narcissus, from whom the English word ‘narcissism’ is derived.

‘Friday’ – Derived From The Name Of A Norse Goddess (or Goddesses)

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Source: Reddit

In honor of the ‘gateway to the weekend’, we have dug up Friday’s mythic origin – Frigg. Primarily known as the spouse of the great Odin (who was the chief among Aesir Norse gods) and the Queen of Asgard, the goddess Frigg was also known as Frigga and Frija in Germanic paganism. Epitomizing the noble aspects of a devoted wife and motherhood, Frigg additionally possessed the power of prophecy. Yet more renowned is her courageous state of mind, as she decided not to reveal the fates and fortunes from her intrinsic pool of prophetical knowledge.

Interestingly enough, many Icelandic authors mention Friday as Freyjudagr, which relates to the goddess Freya – who shares a complex connection with Frigg. And, since we are ‘harping’ (later on that) about Norse mythology and weekdays, Tuesday comes from Tiw (the Old English variant of Tyr, the Norse god of war), Wednesday comes from wodnesdæg (meaning “Woden’s Day”, with Woden referring to Odin), and Thursday comes from Old English þurresdæg (meaning Thor’s day).

‘Fury’ – Derived From The Latin Name For Mythical Greek Spirits

In English, Fury pertains to intense rage or extreme violence. Its legendary counterpart is actually known as ‘Erinyes‘ in Greek Mythology, which in turn was adopted as ‘Furia’ in Latin. The namesake ‘furies‘ were depicted as spirits of vengeance who came from the underworld (Erebus) to wreak havoc on men who had broken their sworn oaths. 

In tune with their chaotic purpose, the furies’ origins are unpleasant, to say the least, with most accounts (like Hesiod’s Theogony) relating how the Erinyes sprouted from Uranus’s torn genitalia when he was castrated by his own son Cronus. Oh, and did we use ‘chaotic’ in one of our previous sentences? Well, chaos is derived from Greek ‘Khaos‘ – a void state personified as a primeval God who preceded the creation of the universe.

‘Grace’ – Derived From A Trio Of Greek Goddesses

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Source: Pinterest

Christian theological traditions define grace as the unrequited love and mercy bestowed upon us by God. However, beyond religious significance, the term is directly translated from Greek χάρις (charis), which pertains to ‘that which brings joy’ – according to The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary.

The term ‘charis‘ is, in turn, related to the Charites, a trio of Greek goddesses (Aglaea or Splendor, Euphrosyne or Mirth, and Thalia or Good Cheer) who epitomized beauty, charm and even creativity. Unsurprisingly, the Charites remain well represented in the field of subsequent artworks, ranging from the works of Raphael Sanzio to Jean Arp.

‘Harp’ – Derived From A Mythical Flying Monster

Art by CJ Centeno

We are not talking about the harp, the serene sounding musical instrument. On the contrary, we have taken the cacophonous route of ‘harping’ or ‘to harp’ – which means to ‘talk or write persistently and tediously on a particular subject’. The term is derived from a ‘harpy‘ (Greek: ἅρπυια), a creature who carried and tortured people who were on their way to Tartarus.

Sometimes they even helped the fellow furies (read above) to dole out judgment on the criminals. As for their odd physical characteristics, the harpies were initially depicted as large birds with faces of beautiful women. However, over time, their visages were detailed as unsightly – as is evident from the writings of both Virgil and Ovid.

‘Hell’ – Derived From The Powerful Norse Goddess Of The Underworld

Most of us must have surely heard about hell, the realm of eternal damnation. Well, its Germanic counterpart was no walk in the park either, with inhabitants like Fenrir the Wolf, Jormungand the Serpent and other subjects who had died through sickness and old age. The ruler of this netherworld (also called Helheim) was the eponymous Hel, who was the daughter of Loki (yes, the very same nemesis of the mighty Thor) and the giant Angrboda. And it fell upon her to judge and decide the fate of the souls who entered her realm.

Descriptions of Hel, the being, have been found in numerous Viking sagas and poems; and most of them portray her as being partly decomposed with a face and a body of living women, but with thighs and legs of a corpse. Still, she was also said to be more powerful than Odin himself, inside her own realm, the Hel.

‘Hyper’ – Derived From The Name Of A Greek Titan

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Art by Thitipon Dicruen. Image Source: Cuded

The word ‘hyper’, often used as a suffix, usually pertains to ‘exceeding’ – and as such, is derived from Greek hyper, meaning “over, above, or beyond”. Incredibly enough, it is related to Hyperion, one of the Titan (Titán) sons of Ouranos and Gaia, and thus belonging to the first generation of Greek gods. Hyperion signified the very essence and scope of heavenly light, while his sister/wife Theia (meaning ‘divine’) was the manifestation of the brightness of the blue sky. 

To that end, even their offsprings were counted among the Greek gods and goddesses of light and heavenly bodies, including Helios, the god of the Sun, Selene, the goddess of the Moon, and Eos, the personification of the Dawn. Consequently, the etymology of the very name Hyperion also alludes to his association with the light and the sky, as it literally means “he who looks from above” – thus alluding to the Greek meaning of hyper (as mentioned before).

‘Mentor’ – Derived From The Name Of A Mythical Adviser

Mentor in English pertains to – ‘an experienced and trusted adviser’. The word comes from an episode in Greek Mythology that involved the hero Odysseus and his son Telemachus. Originally, Mentor was the name of an old man who was Odysseus’s trusted friend. So, when the hero left for the epic Trojan War, he gave Mentor the responsibility of looking after his son, Telemachus.

However, when Athena visited Telemachus, she herself took the guise of the old man, so as to remain hidden from the people of Ithaca. During her disguise, she ‘mentored’ Telemachus in the ways of values, willpower and courage – that even endowed the young man with the determination to go abroad in search of his renowned father.

‘Music’ – Derived From The Daughters Of Zeus

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In English, music relates to sounds that produce harmony and expression of emotion. This intangible yet ‘personal’ sense is always found in its origins – with the word being derived from ‘Muses‘, the personifications of knowledge and art who were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Interestingly, Mnemosyne herself was the personification of memory and was also one of the Titans, the children of Uranus (the Sky) and Gaia (the Earth). As for the Muses themselves, they pleasantly embodied ‘performed metrical speech’ or ‘mousike‘ – from which the term ‘music’ is ultimately borrowed.

‘Ocean’ – Derived From The Name Of Another Greek Titan

The word ‘ocean’ is also derived from the name of another Greek Titan – Okeanos (or Oceanos). To that end, Okeanos was the personification of the massive River Okeanos that was thought to have encircled Earth itself – since the landmasses of Eurasia and Africa (collectively the ‘Earth’) were only known to the Greeks. In essence, much like Hyperion and his association with the vast scope of light, Okeanos was perceived as the monumental ‘receptacle’ that held the entirety of the planet’s water. 

To that end, Okeanos signified all of the earth’s fresh-water – rivers, wells, springs, and even rain-clouds. And his three-thousand children, with his wife Tethys (‘the Nurse’), were also the mythical entities and nymphs (Oceanids) representing the various water bodies and rivers. Interestingly enough, when maritime activities increased by the Hellenistic era, Okeanos possibly represented some aspects of the vast water bodies of what we know as Indian and Atlantic Oceans – thus providing the etymological root of the word ‘ocean’.

‘Panic’ – Derived From Mythical Guardian Of Goats

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Source: Pinterest

In English, panic simply means sudden fear. The word is adopted from ‘Pan‘, who was the son of the Greek messenger god Hermes. Pan resided along the wild mountainsides and was chronicled as the guardian of pastures, sheep, and goats – so much so that he himself was depicted with goat-horns and goat-legs. In terms of characterization, Pan was cheerful, flirtatious as well as irritable, and his hobby was to play on his favorite pipe, the syrinx. But more importantly, he could also turn frightening (especially when he was disturbed in his naps) – which perhaps explains his association with the word ‘panic’.

‘Typhoon’ – Possibly Derived From A Primeval Monster Of Winds

Art by John Silva

‘Typhoon’ while having a serious impact in our ecology, is a rather interesting term when it comes to etymology. That is because, for a long time, it was believed that the English word directly alluded to the Greek Typhon – the mythical monster-like serpentine entity associated with winds (called the ‘father of winds’). To that end, in various Greek myths, Typhon was also regarded as the progenitor of many deadly monsters.

However, the first recorded usage of the word closely related to ‘typhoon’ comes from an English translation (done in 1588) of an Italian account of a voyage to East Indies. The word used in the translation was ‘Touffon’, and it might have been loaned from Portuguese, which, in turn, was possibly derived from the Arabic (or Persian or Hindi) tufan. To that end, al-Tufan is even mentioned in the Koran as a word for ‘storm’, while a similar-sounding Chinese Cantonese word tai fung also means ‘strong wind’. In that regard, there are conjectures relating to how the Arabic word tufan was possibly derived from the Greek Typhon, while the coincidental Chinese (tai fung) and Indian (toofan) versions may have also influenced the modern English word.

Featured Image: Artwork by John Silva

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About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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