Bear - Etymology

Etymology

The English word "bear" comes from Old English bera and belongs to a family of names for the bear in Germanic languages that originate from an adjective meaning "brown". In Scandinavia, the word for bear is björn (or bjørn), and is a relatively common given name for males. The use of this name is ancient and has been found mentioned in several runestone inscriptions.

The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) name of the bear is *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, whence Sanskrit r̥kṣa, Avestan arša, Greek ἄρκτος (arktos), Latin ursus, Welsh arth (whence perhaps "Arthur"), Albanian ari, Armenian արջ (arj). Also compared is Hittite ḫartagga-, the name of a monster or predator. In the binomial name of the brown bear, Ursus arctos, Linnaeus simply combined the Latin and Greek names.

The Proto-Indo-European word for bear, *h₂ŕ̥tḱos seems to have been subject to taboo deformation or replacement in some languages (as was the word for wolf, wlkwos), resulting in the use of numerous unrelated words with meanings like "brown one" (English bruin) and "honey-eater" (Slavic medved). Thus some Indo-European language groups do not share the same PIE root. The theory of the bear taboo is taught to almost all starting students of Indo-European and historical linguistics; the putative original PIE word for bear is itself descriptive, because a cognate word in Sanskrit is rakṣas, meaning "harm, injury".

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