Benito Cereno (benitocereno) wrote,
Benito Cereno

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Mmmm. . . flesh.

It's been a while since the last etymology update, so here's another one. Let's see, what did I write about last time?

Oh, yeah. How sarcasm comes from the Greek word meaning flesh, sarx.

Let's do something else with this same root. Everyone know what a sarcophagus is? Yes? Good. No? Okay. It's a stone coffin, usually with some ornate design on it. Watch a documentary on Egypt, and you're sure to see some sarcophagi.

I can hear your minds reeling already. "Okay, the sarco- part must come from sarx, meaning flesh, but what about that -phagus part?"

Well, those of you who have studied zoology probably know what a coprophagous animal is (and if you've ever accidentally hit a wrong link on the internet, you might know what a coprophiliac is, too, but I digress. . .), that is to say an animal that eats dung. You might similarly know that something that is ichthyophagous eats fish. Something xylophagous eats wood. Are you catching the pattern? You probably are. The -phagus root comes from the Greek verb phagein, meaning to eat.

Sarcophagus is Latin, from the Greek sarkophagos, for "flesh-eating."

But, I hear you cry, what has this to do with a stone coffin? Well, I'll tell you. Sarcophagus and sarkophagos are both just parts of a two word phrase. In Latin, the phrase was lapis sarcophagus. In Greek, the phrase was lithos sarkophagos. Lapis and lithos mean the same thing: stone.

These terms were used to describe a certain limestone that was thought to decompose the flesh of bodies that were placed in it. If you are a serial killer, or have read about them, you are probably familiar with the flesh-eating capabilities of lime. Eventually, people got tired of using the whole phrase and then just went with sarcophagus. Eventually they got tired of using it in such a specific way, and it came to mean "coffin" in general. Strangely, this pattern occured first in Greek, then when the word carried over into Latin, and THEN when the word carried over into English (that is to say, it started off referring specifically to the limestone, then came to mean coffin in general), as the word was first recorded in English in reference to the flesh-eating stone in 1601, and then in 1705 in reference to a stone coffin.

Sure, this update was a little macabre, but whatcha gonna do. It's almost Halloween. Maybe I can find a spookier one for that day.

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