Words And Reason: Mythological Word Origins

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

Mythology has given us a wealth of words and phrases. The stories can help us remember the words’ meanings—and vice versa. Here are a few mythical characters who have contributed to our language.

Arachne A young Greek woman who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. Athena wove a tapestry depicting the gods as powerful, while Arachne created a tapestry that mocked the gods and showed their dark side. Enraged, Athena tore Arachne’s work to pieces. Arachne hanged herself on her loom, but Athena did not let her die, turning her instead into a spider, which would go on weaving, Today, the scientific name for spiders is Arachnida, from Arachne.

Ceres The Roman goddess of the growth of food plants. It is from her name that we get the word cereal.

Mnemosyne Greek goddess of memory and mother of the nine Muses. It is from her name that we get the word mnemonic, which has to do with memory—particularly with things that help us remember.

Pan The Greek god of nature. Part man, part goat, the emotion he was thought to produce in those who saw him gave us the word panic, which means literally “of Pan.”

Proteus Neptune’s herdsman, an old man famous for his power to change shapes at will. Gives us our word protean, which describes anything that can change shapes, adapt quickly, or display variety.

Tantalus In Greek myths, Tantalus was a king who revealed secrets belonging to the gods. His punishment in Hades was being tied to a fruit tree and surrounded by water. However, when he reached up to eat, the branches moved out of reach, and if he bent down to drink, the water vanished, so he was tormented by hunger and thirst, but with the things he wanted just out of reach. From his name, we get the word tantalize.

Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com .