Issue 127, page 1

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Nightmares, death and monsters

This week we read a suggestion that the English word mare comes from an Arabic word for colt.  It doesn't, trust us.  Mare comes from the Old English meowre and is related to mearh "horse".  There are cognate words in Celtic languages, too: Gaulish for "horse" was marhan, Gaelic is mar and Welsh is mari.  Ultimately, they are all thought to derive from the Indo-European root *marko-

So, what about nightmare?  What might horses have to do with dreams?  The answer is that this -mare is a horse of a different color (translation for Brit readers: "different kettle of fish").  It comes from a different Indo-European root, in this case *mer- "to abrade, to rub away, to harm" via the Old English mare "a goblin, a succubus".  In Greek, *mer- turns up in marainen "to wither".  Prefix this with a- ("not-"), confuse slightly with anthos (Greek for "flower") and we have amaranth an "everlasting" flower.  

In Latin, *mer- is especially prolific.  Mordere "to bite" gives us mordant (biting), mordent (a musical ornament which makes a note bite), morsel (a little bite) and remorse (a gnawing conscience).  One might guess that premorse is the the anguish felt before giving in to sin, but no.  It is an old adjective meaning "appearing as if bitten off".  The Latin word mortar (ground down rock) is still in use today.  Morbus "disease" and mors "death" give us morbid and mortal (as well as immortal, mortuary and post mortem).

This deadly aspect of *mer- appears in Greek mbrotos "mortal" which with the help of our handy negative prefix gives us ambrosia ("no-death"), the mythical drink which made the gods immortal.  The Hindu gods have similar drink called soma but they also call it amrita.  Again, this means "no-death" in Sanskrit and it, too, derives from *mer- (remember, our language family is Indo-European).

The Iranian languages are also Indo-European and the chess terms mate and checkmate contain a Persian relative of *mer-.  Originally, the words were maat, "death", and shah-maat "the king is dead".

Yet more obscure, the Old Persian martiya meant "mortal" smile please...and martiya-khvara meant a "man-eater".  This may well have been applied to tigers in its homeland but stories traveled along the trade routes.  Tales of the mantikhoras reached Greece and, increasing in ferocity with each retelling, eventually became the manticore of medieval legend.  There were several versions but most had a human head with a huge mouth and multiple rows of teeth.

When talking about the moon, astronomers also speak of mares except they pronounce it "ma-ray".  This is, of course, a relic of the days when the moon was thought to have seas (Latin mare, "sea").  This is from yet another Indo-European root: *mori- "the sea", source of marine, maritime, marinara, marsh, morass and mermaid.

How do we know all this stuff?  Why not visit our bookstore and find out?

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