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From the ridiculous to the sublime: from "monkey" to "elephant"

From the ridiculous to the sublime: from “monkey” to “elephant”

Animal names are a familiar topic in this blog, and more than once have we seen how hard it is to discover the origin of even such simple words as bunny, dog, cob, calf, and their likes. Only bow-wow and oinkoink pose few or no problems. Some names seem to be baby words, others are loans from distant languages, and more often than not we have to admit that their ultimate sources remain a matter of uncertainty. Excellent books and articles have been written about the etymology of animal names. Among my favorites are the outdated but invariably inspiring ones by August Pott (1802-1887), an almost supernaturally prolific scholar. By the way, it was he who showed that, contrary to what everybody says, dog has cognates outside English. Recently I have reread his essay on the word elephant and decided to write something about this word. I have nothing original to say about it and depend on two works: an excellent book in Italian and a detailed essay in English. Not everybody may have read them; hence my inroad on this convoluted problem.

A few things are not controversial. Elephant reached Middle English in the thirteenth century from France in the form olifa(u)nt. In Dutch, the form olifant has stayed, while in English only the Oliphant family points to that variant of the word’s French ancestry. The circumstances that led to the rise of the ancient but odd surname Oliphant are not known. I lost interest in the origin of such names long ago, after I ran into a mention of Mr Heifer. Not improbably, Oliphant is a folk etymological reshaping of Oliphard and thus has no relation to “a huge pachydermatous quadruped with a trunk,” as some dictionaries define elephant.

One thing is clear: the name of the elephant became known to the West Europeans before they ever saw that quadruped. Alas, Europeans have always been interested in ivory, rather than in the animal and succeeded in bringing that noble beast to the brink of extinction. “Hathi never does anything till the time comes, and that is one of the reasons why he lives so long.” Etymologists should certainly heed this habit. Hathi, you will remember was the wise elephant in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. And you may have read Kipling’s Just So Story about how the elephant got its trunk.

This is how the elephant got its nose, but nothing is said about the tusks.
(Illustration for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child” in Just So Stories, p. 63. 1926. Scanned image by George P. Landow via Victorian Web.)

In Homer, eléphâs means “ivory”; “elephant” is a later sense of this word in Greek. From Greek the word spread to Latin, and from Latin to the rest of Western Europe. Other people have other names for this animal, such as Russian slon. It is the ultimate source of the Greek word that constitutes the problem, but there are other complications. For example, in the fourth-century translation of the New Testament from Greek into Gothic, a Germanic language, the word ulbandus occurs. It is reminiscent of the Greek name for the elephant, but it means “camel”! Ulbandus occurs in the familiar verse: “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (RV, L 18. 25). Bishop Wulfila, the translator into Gothic,came across Greek kámelos and, apparently, knew its equivalent in his native language, regardless of whether he had ever seen a camel. The resulting confusion is typical of the names of large exotic animals: for instance, here elephant, there camel. In similar fashion, the above-mentioned Russian noun slon “elephant” is probably an alteration of Turkic arslan “lion.” (This word for the lion yielded the name of the hero Ruslan; stress on the second syllable.) Slavic speakers knew as little about lions and elephants as did the Goths. Most researchers believe that ulbandus and elephant are variants of the same word, and there is good reason to share this belief. Anyway, ulbandus traveled peacefully to the eastern Slavs and became vel’bliud ~ verbliud “camel” in Ukrainian and Russian.

Ruslan in full glory.
(By Nikolai Ge via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

There are two ways to look at the origin of the word elephant. Since, in the remote past, it was not the animal but the ivory that interested those who coined the word, it may be that the root of elephant is the same as that of ivory. Now, ivory goes back, ultimately, to Latin ebur (the same meaning), related to Egyptian ābu and especially Coptic ebou ~ ebu, which meant both “elephant” and “ivory.” The Coptic language represents the final stage of Ancient Egyptian. Conversely, there are many words in Indo-European with the root el– “horn,” as in English elk. Elephants do not have horns, but the same root does occur in the word for “tusk” in several old languages. Worthy of note are also the attempts to connect elephant with Luwian lahpa “ivory” and Hittite lahma “? elephant.” (Both Hittite and Luwian are ancient, now dead Indo-European languages of the Anatolian group; my transcriptions have been simplified.)

Are you sure it is an elephant?
(Photo by Megan Schultz on Unsplash, public domain)

Outside Indo-European, the Semitic root ‘alp “ox” has been discussed since the seventeenth century as a possible source of elephant. August Pott traced elephant to the phrase aleph Hindi “Indian ox.” But perhaps el- in elephant is an Arabic article! The rest of the word would then mean “ivory” and the whole word “the ivory.” For the record: the Copts called the elephant and ivory eb(o)u, and the Sanskrit word for “elephant” is íbhas. The Hebrew form shenhabbim is not too far away either, but perhaps this word was an alteration of the phrase shēn-hābrum “ivory and ebony.” What a lot of clues and of very intelligent guessing! We are undoubtedly dealing with a migrant word.

Obviously, the origin of elephant remains undiscovered (or we may say, no derivation has been recognized as definitive), partly, as pointed out above, because the word became known long before the Europeans saw the animal for the first time. Yet the confusion or the union of the words for “elephant” and “ivory” in at least some languages is certain. Though the word may have an ascertainable Indo-European root, all the existing hypotheses in this direction are shaky. Nor are the attempts to trace elephant to some North African language fully convincing, even if the non-Indo-European source of our word is probable.

The list of the etymologists who over the centuries have dealt with the elephant looks like WHO IS WHO IN HISTORICAL LINGUISTICS. In it we find, among many others, Adolphe Pictet, August Pott, Max Müller, Ferdinand de Saussure, Paul Kretschmer, Jaan Puhvel, and Viacheslav Ivanov. You may never have heard those names. The reason is that etymologists are not famous public figures. Ecstatic fans do not shower them with flowers, and their salaries are modest. They usually teach at colleges and universities and prevent our culture from falling into desuetude. Also, following Hathi’s example, they work slowly (eat an elephant one bite at a time, as it were).

A celebration of an etymological discovery?
(Photo by Hayley Seibel on Unsplash, public domain)

Featured image by Craig Stevenson on Unsplash (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    “In Homer, eléphâs means “ivory”; “elephant” is a later sense of this word in Greek. From Greek the word spread to Latin, and from Latin to the rest of Western Europe”

    Of cpurse “elephant” is a Greek word! Just as “hippopotamus”, and “crocodile” and “lion” and “camel” and “mule” and “crow” and “sparrow” etc. are from the Greek. Does that surprise you?

    But when we reject the obvious for a contrived derivation we enter the realm “from the ridiculous to the sublime”!

  2. Pete

    You say that the western Europeans had no experience of elephants, but the Romans certainly did, Hannibal took them over the Alps in an attempt to attack Rome!

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