Thursday, October 15, 2015

Language of Confusion: Crawlers, Part II

And now the conclusion of our look into the etymology of things that creep me out. This week: eight legged monstrosities.

Spider first showed up in the late fourteenth century with the much cooler spelling of spydyr, and earlier on it had some other (equally cool) spellings: spiÞre, siÞur, and spiÞer. That symbol is thorn, which is the old symbol for th, which means spider used to be spither. Earlier, it was the Old English spiðra, and that symbol is another th one, making this word spithra. It comes from the Proto Germanic spin-thron, which literally means “the spinner”, and yes, is related to spin. Actually, calling them spiders wasn’t common in Old English. They were called loppe /lobbe (which was more specifically a silkworm), and atorcoppe. Atorcoppe literally means “poison-head”, and although the word is never used anymore, a vestige of coppe remains in cobweb.

Tarantula showed up in the mid sixteenth century, literally meaning “wolf spider” because plain old spider wasn’t enough. It actually comes from the Medieval Latin tarantula which comes from…the Italian tarantola? Seriously? Huh, apparently they were named after the Italian city of Taranto because they were common there. And hey, guess what place I will never, ever be visiting?

I’m sure most of you know of the constellation Scorpio, which one of the zodiac signs comes from. But scorpion like the bug showed up in the early thirteenth century, from the Old French scorpion, classical Latin scorpionem/scorpius, both of which just mean scorpion. Latin took it from Greek, where it was skorpios (because Greek words have to have Ks in them), which actually can be traced to the Proto Indo European sker-, to cut, the origin word for shear, like you would wool. Apparently ancient Greek scorpions didn’t just sting people, they sliced them up ; ).

Ew, ticks. The word for the little bloodsuckers comes from the Old English ticia and West Germanic tik. And before that…??? It’s another no one knows, although it’s definitely not related to any other form of tick (like to tick someone off or tick-tock like a clock). One possibility is that it comes from the Proto Indo European deigh, which means insect. So we have the origins of like ten words for spider, but no one knows where tick comes from? Words are really dumb sometimes.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. This is the creepiest post I've ever read.

  2. Along came an atorcoppe, and sat down beside her... no, doesn't work.

  3. So, cobweb just means spider web but with an older word for spider? Um, okay. That makes sense.


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