Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Monoceros

I have always liked the word "unicorn" for some reason that eludes me.  It just sounds beautiful.  And yet, why do we call it a unicorn?  The name is from Latin, "unus" = one, "cornus" = horn (e.g. cornucopia).  Every other animal, it seems, gets its name from Greek roots.  Thus, we have the hippopotamus, not the equuflumen, and the rhinoceros, not the nasocorn.  Dinosaurs have Greek names, too:  stegasaurus, "roof lizard," brachiosaurus, "arm lizard," and triceratops, "three-horn face."  (Although I should mention the oddity of tyrannosaurus rex:  tyrannosaurus is Greek for "tyrant lizard," but rex is Latin for "king."  Tyrannosaurus basileus, anyone?)  Even other mythical creatures usually have names of Greek origin, such as the phoenix and the chimera.

According to Wikipedia, source of all knowledge, the unicorn originated in Greek myth.  Why, therefore, does it get a Latin name, unlike almost every other real or imagined beast?  Did someone just decide that "monoceros" sounded too lame (I would agree) and therefore went with the more mellifluous "unicorn"?  Or did the name get changed some time in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the West knew Latin but Greek was uncommon?  Oddly, there is a constellation named "monoceros" (discovered in the 17th century), so it's not like the idea never occurred to anyone.

No comments:

Post a Comment