Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

In the footsteps of our greatest favorite: vampire

In the footsteps of our greatest favorite: vampire

We love books and movies about vampires, don’t we? Everybody knows who Dracula was, and many people believe that we owe the entire myth to him. This, however, is not true. Below, I won’t deal with the origin of the belief but only with the history of the word vampire. My blog post is based almost entirely on the paper by Katharina M. Wilson in Journal of the History of Ideas, 46, 1985, 577-83. I will largely pass by the problems of etymology, because the word vampire and its kin inevitably take us to the lands of the Slavs and elsewhere, away from the English-speaking world. Some of the most important works on the word are in Polish and Russian. Specialists know about them, and anyone can find a few references in my book A Bibliography of English Etymology. Here, I’ll only mention the important fact that the word vampire is not Hungarian. A relatively early (and wrong) Hungarian etymology of vampire was offered by Richard Stephen Charnock, a prolific student of word origins, in Notes and Queries 4/V, 1870, p. 378.

The history of the word vampire

In France, the word vampire emerged in 1737, but some cases of vampirism were discussed at Sorbonne as early as 1693. The tale of the vampire owes its late popularity to the story by John William Polidori (1795-1821; he died at the age of 25!). Its title is The Vampyre. This 72 page-long tale, which has a most interesting history, was a tremendous success in and outside England. Its full text can now be found online. However, long before Polidori, Robert Southey brought out his poem Thalaba the Destroyer (1801; the vampire is the man’s deceased wife), and in 1813, Byron’s The Giaour appeared. Southey is almost forgotten, but Byron still languishes in some of our graduate courses. Predictably, it was not the theme of vampirism but a full-length tale by Polidori, with the word vampyre in the title, that gained popularity all over Europe.

In England, the term vampire turned up in the seventeenth century. Katharina Wilson notes that Charles Forman, in his brochure Some Queries and Observations Upon the Revolution in 1688, written in the same year but published only in 1741, used the term metaphorically (“…the Vampires of the Publick, and Riflers of the Kingdom”), without explaining the word. Rifler means “robber.” I may add that Wilson pointed to an important fact in historical lexicography. Quite often, we have no way of knowing when a certain word appeared or became marginal in English (or in any language, for that matter), and the writer’s comment or “gloss” provides a clue to the word’s age: if such a word is italicized or explained, we conclude that it is recent, obsolete, or at least rare in the language. Since Forman used vampire in a matter-of-fact way, apparently, no one had trouble understanding it, even when the bloodsucker was not a real vampire.

Vlad the Impaler, the prototype of Bran Stoker’s novel about Dracula. That cruel ruler was NOT a vampire!
(Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As far as I can judge, vampire has not yet been edited in the OED online, and Wilson provides an antedating. Here I may again go off on a tangent and add a digression. The OED was published between 1884 and 1928. One of the most prominent features of each entry was the fact the public now received reliable information about the date of the first occurrence of every word included (naturally, according to the data at the editors’ disposal). No sooner had the first fascicle appeared than the game of antedating began. For a century and a half, people have been providing the staff at Oxford with earlier citations than those found in the printed texts. Quite a few letters by James A. H. Murray, the first OED’s editor, deal with this problem. The remarkable thing is not that we now know many earlier or more precise dates than those which came to the attention of Murray’s team but how often that team did find the earliest citations still available. Be that as it may, we now deal with a more precise date of the appearance of vampire in English. It is therefore nice to know that the subjects of Charles II would have understood and appreciated The Silence of the Lambs and not only the obscene comedies of their Restoration Literature and Shakespeare’s plays.

In the 1745 book, the one to which the OED refers, we find the following passage:

These Vampyres are supposed to be the Bodies of deceased Persons, animated by evil Spirits, which come out of the Graves, in the Night-time, suck the Blood of many of the Living, and thereby destroy them.

The description is long and detailed. In Italy, vampirism was discussed in some detail in the middle of the eighteenth century. Pope Benedict objected to the cruel maltreatment and mutilation of corpses believed to be vampires. (According to a widespread belief, in order to get rid of a vampire, it was necessary to open his grave and impale, that is, pierce the corpse with a stake. A somewhat similar superstition is known from Icelandic sagas: the so-called undead, or revenants, roamed their neighborhoods and did all kinds of terrible things, even though they were not bloodsuckers; after killing them again, a special ceremony was needed to get rid of the monster.)

John William Polidori.
(Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Since the Pope’s work treating this subject was, naturally, written in Latin, the word that interests us also appeared in Latin, with y after p. (Polidori, as we have seen, made use of the same spelling.) Italian vampiro goes back to 1789. Especially important is Wilson’s statement that “in Hungary and Transylvania, the supposed homeland of vampires, the term ‘vampire’ exists only as a neologism and was never as popular as in the West.”

I have already noted that the Slavic etymology of vampire will not be discussed here. However, those interested in this subject should be informed that the proposed Avestan, Tartar, and Modern Greek sources of the word, should be, most probably, dismissed. The proto-Slavic form existed, but its exact shape remains a matter of debate and is of no consequence in the present context.

Two additions to last week’s gleanings

First. Yes, of course, the idiom is many a mickle makes a muckle. I simply paraphrased the saying. Second, Scots hallenshaker. I have already apologized for my blunder. I divided the word into three segments, namely, hall-en-shaker, because I had not consulted dictionaries and did not know the word hallen, but it seems that my guess was not entirely wrong. The OED says that the origin of hallen is unknown (and the same is said in the recent Scots dictionaries), but that it must be connected in some way with hall. This is the most obvious etymology (which of course does not mean that it is correct). Not improbably, hallen, which, curiously, looks like the definite form of the Scandinavian noun hall “vestibule, etc.,” is indeed an extended form of hall, even though the process of derivation remains unclear. See the post, “Do you blather when you skate?”.

Featured image: “Dracula (1931 film poster)”, via Picryl, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Vampyres show up in English from 1731 and 1732, via hathitrust, if you dare.

  2. Seran Bowden

    To Liberman:

    “Vlad the Impaler, the prototype of Bran Stoker’s novel about Dracula. That cruel ruler was NOT a vampire!”

    “Cruel ruler” is gratuitous.
    The research needed to disabuse you of that notion would take decades.
    We have done it, and sifting through such material as is available from multitude of sources requires a complex, erudite background.
    We have brought to bear our knowledge from such variety of domains as these: Physics, Systems Science, Neural Networks, Robotics, etc., aside from Paleography and Anthropological Studies.
    To validate or invalidate all sources takes more than one can imagine.
    Also, there are manuscripts which have never been published.
    There are contemporary testimonies from Ottoman Empire, Iran, India, and even China!

    Vlad Dracula was in fact the epitome of knighthood, and his life counted little with him when faced with doing What Is Right.

    Can’t take our word for it?
    Then, go ahead and do what we have done.

Comments are closed.