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When we think about the riches of King Tut and the mysteries of the Egyptian pyramids we can imagine those big stone coffins that the literati call sarcophagi.
Although it was Egyptian pharaohs that were entombed in the things, it wasn’t the Egyptians that invented that name; that came from Greek.
According to Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable a special kind of stone was to be found at Assos, the now Turkish town where Aristotle lived. This stone, it was believed, had the rather revolting quality that if one made a coffin out of it, and laid a body inside, the stone itself would eat the dead in a matter of weeks.
And so the Greeks took their word for flesh sarx and their word phagein “to eat” and named the particular stone appropriate for making coffins sarkophagos meaning “flesh eating.”
Pliny the Elder included this little piece of trivia in his book Natural History written more than 2000 years ago and from there the word sarcophagus popped into English in a 1601translation of the Classic work.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.