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Guns, herbs, and sores: inside the dragon’s etymological lair

While St. George is widely venerated throughout Christian communities, England especially honors him, its patron saint, for St. George’s Day on 23 April. Indeed his cross, red on a white field, flies as England’s flag.

St. George, of course, is legendary for the dragon he slew, yet St. George bested the beast in legend alone. From Beowulf to The Game of Thrones, this creature continues to breathe life (and fire) into our stories, art, and language; even the very word dragon hoards its own gold. Let’s brave our way into its etymological lair to see what treasures we might find.

Dragon

A dragon may evoke fiery breath and taloned wings, but the origin of the word dragon conjures up a different feature: eyes. Dragon ultimately comes from the ancient Greek δράκων (drakon), which names a ‘dragon’ and, more generally, a ‘serpent.’ This word, in turn, derives from a verb, δέρκεσθαι, ‘to see clearly’. As etymologist Walter Skeat glosses it, δράκων literally means ‘sharp-sighted.’

The yellow, unblinking eyes of snakes have in part inspired the mythical beast, as dragon’s early 13th-century references to ‘snake’ and ‘python’ suggest. Ironically, snakes rely very little on their eyesight; their senses of smell and touch are what we should describe as ‘sharp.’

Draconian

‘Sharp-sighted’ also names a Greek statesman, Draco, who instituted severe punishments for minor offenses in ancient Athens. Draco enacted his cruel code all the way back in 7th century BC, but thanks to his legacy we still call extreme measures draconian today.

Drake

Historical linguists have taken the Greek δράκων back to the Indo-European root *derk‘to see’, while Latin took up δράκων as dracō. As it passed into the Germanic languages, dracō eventually yielded English’s drake, an early name for ‘dragon.’ Far less terrifying—and mythical—is the male duck, drake, but that word has a different origin. Etymologist Ernest Weekley suggests drake’s Old English source, draca, was ‘an early church word,’ identified with whales, sharks, crocodiles, and other biblical leviathans.

Dragoon

As it evolved in the Romance languages, the Latin dracō eventually yielded the French dragon, hence English’s dragon. Dragons may have never actually killed anyone, but guns have. In the French warfare of the 1600s, soldiers likened the gunfire of a carbine to the fiery breath of dragons, which came to name this musket-like weapon. A kind of cavalry soldier noted for wielding this weapon also came to be known by this name, hence the English dragoon.

Rankle

A dragoon might well cause a festering sore, which English once called a rankleYou probably recognize the word in its milder, modern verb form, but you may not recognize its root: the Latin dracunculus, ‘little dragon,’ diminutive form of draco. An ‘abscess’ or ‘ulcer’, a dracunculus may have burned like a dragon’s fiery breath, evoked its scaly skin, or suggested the creature’s purported venom, as etymologists have proposed. Drancunculus shed some syllables to yield the French draoncle, as well as its initial ‘d’ in a variant form, raoncle, from which English gets rankle.

Tarragon

Historically, physicians might have turned to herbs to treat a wound like a rankle. Here, the doctor might prescribe some tarragon. Known in scientific circles as Artemisa dracunculus (see rankle above), tarragon may have taken a rather sinuous route into English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), some etymologists propose that the name of this plant comes from the Latin tragonia or tarchon, adopted from the Arabic ṭarkhōn, which was in turn taken from the Greek δράκων.

Tarragon may not evoke might or magic, but the association between the mythical monster and the serpent-like appearance of some plants is observed in many dragon-related plant terms in English; dragonwortdragon’s blooddragon’s-clawdragon’s-herbdragon’s mouth, snapdragon, and green dragon all exemplify the connection, as the OED records. Different kinds of herbs and drugs, however, are behind puffing the dragon and chasing the dragon, the latter  being a phrase of Chinese origin involving a different tradition of dragon mythology than we see in the West.

Dracula

Tarragon pairs nicely with garlic, no? Not if you’re Dracula. Now, Dracula and dragons aren’t just kin as myths and monsters. They have a lot of history—word history that is. The name DraculaBram Stoker’s infamous vampire king in his 1897 novel of the same name—is taken from an epithet for Vlad the Impaler, a gruesome 15th-century Wallachian prince. According to the OED, this Dracula means ‘son of Dracul’ in Romanian. Dracul, in turn, means ‘dragon’, referring to Vlad’s father, who joined the Order of the Dragon, a Crusade-styled Christian fellowship. This order also adopted St. George as its patron saint, which brings us full circle. Just like the order’s symbol, the uroboros: the snake—or dragon—eating its own tail.

A version of this blog post first appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

Image Credit: “Bunting hung in preparation for the Lord Mayor’s Show in London” by traveljunction. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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