Ok, I have a thing for bears. It’s not the cuteness though it might be a childhood evolution of loving Winnie the Pooh. They are surprising human-like in some aspects, are powerful despite all the fluff, and have permeated our mythologies. So you can imagine my shock and intrigue, when I learned that bear does not mean bear.
We don’t know what the English name for bear is. We can, however, delve backwards to find the Proto-Indo-European word and work from there. This word, *rtko, is the hypothesized root word for Arctic which relates to bears. The closest word we have to that is ‘carl’ meaning a common, free man.
This article is going to look at the word “bear” and it’ll try to find out what bear means, why the name is not used, and what the real name of the animal is in English is.
So, what does bear mean?
The word we use for bear is derived from an old form of the word “brown.” More specifically it means “the brown one.” In Old English this was expressed as ‘bera.’ It is possible that there was a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word for ‘dark animal’ which is thought to have been *bheros though most go back to the PIE word for brown which might have been *bher. *Bheros is supposed due to other similar nicknames like beaver.
Is English the only language to give a nickname to bears?
All Germano-Nordic peoples use a nickname for the bear as well as for many other animals (see below). Here’s a list of old words for bear:
Old Norse: bjorn
Middle Dutch: bere
Many other European language groups have nicknames for bears too. For example, Slavs use the word medved which means honey-eater while Lithuanians call it meska, which means ‘the licker.’
Is it just bears who get a nickname?
No, other animals too get nicknames. This includes beavers, deer, boars, horses, and so on. How an animal gains a nickname rather than has its real name is quite specific. It appears that these animals need to be hunted.
If we go with the hunt origin of nicknames, we can suppose which species were hunted and which were not. The ones which were not hunted seem to fall into two camps. These were either those which were dangerous or ignored such as wolves or domesticated animals.
Some animals clearly fell into two camps. For example, we have the modern word horse which means ‘fast one’ and is a nickname. But Old English also had eo which is related to the Latin word equus and is the animal’s real name.
Meanwhile, deer is a word meaning ‘beast’ and could be related to any hunted animal in theory yet slowly came to fall on our modern deer. Yet we still have a word for deer, we see it in the names of some pubs – hart. A female deer was a hind.
What did southern Indo-Europeans call bears?
The dividing line between those who call bears by a nickname and those who do not seems to be the Alps-Carpathians. Though this is prior to the Slavic migration into the Balkans which disrupted the north-south divide in bear naming. Here’s a list of words for bear in some southern (and western) languages:
What we can tell from this is that there’s been an Ar/Ur split between different tongues. How this happened is fascinating and could be a study in itself. The reason for the relative uniformity is because the word relates to Arctic and its ultimate PIE form *rtko.
The Greek word for ‘of the north’ is derived from the bear itself or rather the bear constellation. Other southern PIE types took this with them, but the northern ones changed the term, dropping it and replacing it with a nickname.
So what is the English word for bear?
Truth is we do not have any known word for bear. Not that I’ve found so far anyway. Old English has Ar, Arc, Arth, and Ur formations, but they are not related to bears or animals or to attributes of bears.
The biggest clue might lay outside of English. Actually, it may lay in a non-PIE language – Finnish. Stick with me here because Finnish actually contains a large number of words of non-Finnish origin. Their origin is not known which probably rules out Swedish origins. Therefore they are likely to be of a paleo-European origin.
Why bring up Finnish? The reason I mention this language is because their word for bear is ‘karhu.’ This echoes the PIE root of Arctic rather well – *rkto. I suggest that the Finnish word for bear has an old PIE root – either that or Paleo-European was related to PIE.
How can Karhu help us work out the English word for bear?
First we have the fact that Karhu is similar to *rkto. Second, let’s look at the history of the English people and the language. Before invading Britain in the 5th century, the English peoples were part of different tribes.
This included Scandinavian as well as Germanic ones. Many of these tribes moved south and west through Sweden, into Denmark, and then beyond with the Danes being the last to do so. I believe this meant contact with the pre-Finnish people of modern Finland. The Germano-Nordic peoples moved through Finland. Maybe the left the word karhu behind?
Finally, let’s look at Kar(hu) related words. The second syllable may be a Finnish modification, but ‘kar’ could be related. Well, in Old English this could be ‘car’ as we use a c instead of a k for a hard kc sound. There are a number of interesting car words in Old English including:
Cargest: sad spirit, devil
Carlmann: male human (man being gender neutral)
Naturally, carl is the most interesting to me. It does not have a PIE etymology meaning it is of uncertain provenance. What we do know is that around Northern Europe carl meant ‘free man’ though sometimes also ‘old man.’
Nothing proven, but given how bears can sound like babies and make realistic sounds, and how bears are often worshipped as well as hunted, I suggest that the Old English word for a low-born free human is related to our old name for bear.
Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but what do you think? Am I onto something? What do you think the English name for bear is?