Friday, July 8, 2011

The Language of Confusion: Un-Bear-Able

I’m pretty sure I chose this word just so I could use that title.

Anyway, bear is another one of those weird words that has two discrete meanings. One is a large animal, the other is a synonym for endure. And let’s not forget bear as a synonym for birth. There has to be a reason these words spell and sound the same, right?

Wrong. Nothing is logical in linguistics.

Both bears come from Old English. Bear (the verb) is from beran and bear (the animal) from bera. Still pretty close. Further back, in Proto Germanic, you get beranan and beron respectively. Beranan has a similar meaning to endure, give birth to. But beron actually means “the brown one” (brown is actually brunazin Proto Germanic; pretty close to what we call the animal).

Of course, then the two etymologies go back to being one. Just like in English, the Proto Indo European bher has more than one meaning, both endure and brown. It’s worth noting, however, that bher is not the word for bear (animal)—that word is rtko. No, I have no idea how to pronounce that.

I would say we have the Germans to thank for picking the animal’s brown fur for its name. Brown bears are still found in Europe and I guess they chose one of its most distinguishing characteristics. I guess it was a tough choice between “brown” and “furred death machine.”  

Thanks to the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Bear Planet site for the info.


  1. I find that the older roots of the word have a very primal sort of sound to them... quite handy for using for surnames for possible characters too.

  2. I wonder if beron sounds like Baron. Although, that would be a weird connection if there was one.

  3. I totally would have gone with "furred death machine", had I been Proto-German.

  4. Oh English. *sigh* Then there is bare to worry about. My gravy.


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