Eponyms from Greek & Roman Mythology

Many commonly (or not so commonly) used words have their origins in characters from Greek or Roman history/mythology. Some stories behind these words named after people are below:

Draconianexcessively harsh laws

Mercury: Roman messenger god

Named after the Greek law maker named Draco, who in 621 BCE passed a number of very strict laws, including the death penalty for minor infringements.

Mercurialsomeone with sudden changes in mood or opinion.

Named from Mercury the Roman messenger god, who was changeable in nature.

Narcissistichaving an excessive obsession with one’s own appearance.

From the myth of Narcissus a beautiful hunter who caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water and fell madly in love with himself. Unable to tear himself away he spent all his time gazing lovingly at his own reflection, losing his will to live and eventually dying.

Martialrelating to war.

Named from Mars, the Roman God of war.

Narcissus: painting by Caravaggio

Tantalisingto be tormented by something desirable but unobtainable

From the myth of Tantalus who was handed down an eternal punishment to stand forever in a pool of water, which receded every time he stooped down to drink and with delicious low-hanging fruit just out of his grasp.

Thespianan actor

From Thespis, said to be the first actor to take to the stage in Ancient Greece.

Eroticrelating to sexual desire

Named from Eros, the Greek god of love.

Mentora trusted adviser

From the character Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was Odysseus’s good friend who gave sage advice during his epic voyage.

Panicuncontrollable fear and anxiety

From the Greek god Pan, who could cause sudden, contagious fear in people and animals through the power of his voice.

This is just a short summary of some of the eponyms I found from Greek and Roman mythology for more, plus the stories behind 150 eponyms from botany, fashion, mythology, medicine, invention, see my upcoming book The Real McCoy out in October 2018.

Animal noises from around the world: meow

For the last in my series of blogs about animal noises around the world I will be examining the meow of a cat:


"Listen, do you want to know a secret" by Lazy Lightning - Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Listen,_do_you_want_to_know_a_secret.jpg#/media/File:Listen,_do_you_want_to_know_a_secret.jpg

To end our discussion on onomatopoeic animal sounds we finish with the sound that engenders the most agreement around the world – the ‘miaow’ of a cat. The only thing that tends to differ is the phonetic spelling of the word.

In English two spellings are widely used ‘miaow’ or ‘meow’ both of which can be traced back to the early seventeenth century.  Chambers Dictionary of Etymology demonstrates how the noise has developed. The first recorded imitative sound for a cat is ‘mew’ found in 1596 in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Then came ‘miau’ found in 1634 and probably deriving from the French ‘miaou’. Finally comes ‘meow’ first recorded in 1873 (although I have found it earlier as ‘mee-ow’ in the 1843 American book New Nursery Songs for all Good Children).

German, Swahili and Portuguese all use ‘miau’ whereas Spanish, Italian and Mandarin use ‘miao’. The French spelling is like a mixture of the two ‘miaou’. In Russian it is ‘miaow’, Danishmiav’ and Swedishmjau’. The Japanese use ‘nyao’ and Greekniaow’. The most creative spelling prize goes to the Filipinos who use ‘ngiyaw’ and the only language to use a slightly different sound is Korean where they use ‘ya-ong’. However, generally here at last is an animal sound that in both written and imitative form is little changed the world over.


As our tour through the animal sounds of the world draws to a close we might consider what we have learned. The imitation of animal sounds are archaic, following no rule or reason, but what we can note is that it is in childhood that these noises are learned and put to most use.

It is from much-loved rhymes and children’s stories that the sounds become regularised and committed to paper, bringing their arbitrary noises into common usage. With the all-pervasive nature of American movies and the globalisation of children’s brands it seems increasingly likely that the quirky linguistic differences in animal sounds may disappear as more children worldwide consume the same stories and a standard is set.

Do you think animal noises will become standardised? Please leave a comment!

Animal noises from around the world: cock-a-doodle-doo

Following on from my previous blog posts on animal noises around the world, this week’s victim is the cockerel.


The crowing of a rooster is an especially distinctive sound. Each language has tried to capture the undulating call to varying degrees of success.

A Cockerel
A Cockerel

In English the somewhat archaic ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ has a long history of use. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymescock-a-doodle-doo’ first appeared in print in a pamphlet in 1606 (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology gives an earlier date of 1573). It can also be found in the nursery rhyme ‘Cock-a-doodle doo, What is my Dame to do?’ which was printed in Mother Goose’s Melody in c.1765. The same sound appears in the 1853 English translation of the Brothers Grimm Household Stories in the tale of ‘Old Mother Frost’ (Frau Holle) and also in ‘The Musicians of Bremen’ (in the original German it is ‘kikeriki’).

In Frenchcocorico’ is used. The French have very strong associations with the cock, as the Gallic rooster is a national symbol. Thus the French sometimes use the cry of ‘cocorico’ to cheer on the French sporting sides. This sound seems to be a fairly good approximation of a rooster’s crow as similar sounds are used in many languages, for example Greekkeekeereekou’, Croatiankukuriku’ and Russiankukareku’. Japanese uses ‘kokekokko’, Swahilikukrikukuu’, Dutchkukelekuu’, Spanishkikiriki’, Italianchicchirichi’ and Swedishkuckeliku’.

A few languages demonstrate a completely different interpretation of the sound – in Mandarin a rooster is said to say ‘wo wo wo’ and in Thai it is ‘egg-e-egg-egg’ –despite this anomaly it is interesting to note that the rooster’s crow is one of the few animal noises that seems to have a general linguistic consensus across the globe.

What noise do you use for a cockerel? Please leave a comment!

Animal noises from around the world: neigh

This week for my series of blogs on animal noises from around the world I will be discussing the noise made by a horse.


Horses from Brockhaus and_Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary b35_043-0

The horses’ neigh has a very clear etymological root and can be traced back to the Old Englishhnægan’ via the Middle Englishneyen’ and the Middle High German ‘neggen’. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes that it can be found as early as 1382 in the Wycliffe Bible as ‘neighen’.

With most animal sounds in the English language there is a descriptive word – bleat, low, bark, but then a different imitative word – baa, moo, woof. With neigh it can be used as both descriptive and imitative. However, if you ask an English child what noise a horse makes they are as likely to imitate the clip clopping of the horses’ hooves as to make a neighing noise.

It would seem that in many other languages, although the root of their descriptive word may be similar to neigh, the sound they actually use differs. For example in Dutch their descriptive word is ‘neijen’, yet the noise a horse makes is the undulating ‘hiehihihi’. A similar sound is also used in Japanesehi hi’, French and Portuguesehi hi hi and Italian ‘hiiiii’’. In Danish they use the imitative ‘pruuh’ and in Swedishgnägg’. In Russian they use a completely different sound for a horse ‘ee-goh-goh’.

Literary horses make a variety of noises from a whicker to a whinny to a snort therefore it is unsurprising that there is no universal agreement on one single sound. In one of the most famous children’s stories about a horse – Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’ which was published in 1877 – the eponymous horse is said to neigh, snort and whinny at different points in the book suggesting that in terms of noises the horse is not a one-trick pony.

What noise do you use for a horse? Please leave a comment!

Animal noises from around the world: moo

For the third in my series of blogs on animal noises from around the world I will be looking at the noise a cow makes:


A Cow
A Cow

The mooing sound of a cow appears to have a much longer history in the English language than the ‘oink’ of a pig. The Oxford English Dictionary states that ‘moo’ was first recorded in the sixteenth century and Chambers Dictionary of Etymology dates it precisely to 1549.

The noise a cow makes in English is generally described as ‘lowing’ (which derives from the Old English ‘lowen’) for example in the 1885 Christmas carol ‘Away in a Manger’ – “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes”. However, the imitative word (and the word usually taught to children) is ‘moo’.

Such is the link between the cow and its mooing sound that children are sometimes encouraged to call cows ‘moo-cows’ as attested by the many Edwardian children’s books with moo-cow in the title for example ‘Moo Cow Tales’ by Rosamund Nesbit, published in 1905.

Around the world ‘moo’ or its variants are widely used reflecting its longevity and the strongly onomatopoeic nature of the word. Japan, Russia and Greece all use ‘moo’, while Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden, China, Italy and Germany all use the similar ‘muuu’. Differences can be seen in French, where they use the more elaborate ‘meuh’ and Korean where two syllables ‘um me’ are used.

The cow’s ‘moo’ is an enduring sound in the English language, unlike some animal noises that have changed over time or have a number of alternatives. Likewise around the world most languages use a similar sound. This indicates a strong historical usage of the sound. This simplicity and agreement is rare amongst animal sounds, as we shall see with next week’s noise  – the neigh of a horse.

Please leave a comment!