April 29, 2019

Words of the Month - Y is for Ypotryll

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination.  If this sounds interesting, please check out my Kickstarter Campaign for all the details.

        The ypotryll is a rare and goofy chimerical creature that seems to have begun and ended in European heraldry.  To me, its appeal is two-fold.  First, because of its rarity there aren’t many depictions of it, and the version most commonly seen gives it this wholly ridiculous and cheesy grin.  I just couldn’t help loving any monster with such a silly smile.  In my bestiary the moral I’ve drawn from the ypotryll is that “the imagination must never fear to be ridiculous.  A thousand absurd ideas are a necessary part of the process of populating the Realms of Imagination, so that truly silliness can be as valuable in its turn as the more practical ideas which it may help to inspire and evolve.”
        And secondly, its name is such a fabulous word.  So we’re once again having our Words of the Month a day early so that we can take a closer look at those funny-looking, good-for-hangman-and-spelling-bees English words that start with Y followed by a consonant.  There aren’t many.  

Yggdrasil - the “world tree’ of Norse mythology.  I mention it because it’s well-known in mythology/fantasy, and it’s a particularly satisfying mouthful of a word, but I really shouldn’t include it since it’s a proper noun.  So, setting aside other proper nouns, my dictionary has

yclept - “called,” as in “I am a blogger yclept Anne.”  Six centuries ago all kinds of verbs in English could take y- or ye- in their past participles, but why, when all the others are long gone, yclept has sort of managed to stick around as a self-consciously super-archaic form I cannot say. (While I’m on the topic of archaic forms, I can also mention that in the days before standardized spelling it was possible to see just about any word that begins with a vowel sound occasionally spelled with a y.  As we’ve seen before, yale, for example, is an alternate spelling of eale.  My favorite of these spellings just might be yse-yckel, meaning “icicle.”  For purposes of my list of English words beginning with Y, however, these just don’t cut it.)

ylang-ylang - “a perfume derived from a tropical flowering tree,” from Tagalog ilang-ilang.  I can’t tell you why the perfectly reasonable I from Tagalog got changed to a silly Y in English.  I surmise that it’s because we got the word by way of French, but I haven’t confirmed that.

ylem - "the matter of which the universe is formed," borrowed from Medieval Latin hylem in 1948 to refer to the Big Bang theory.  This one supposedly is a resuscitation of a Middle English word found by a cosmologist in "a large dictionary," but the OED gives its first appearance as 1948 and the Middle English form as hyle, so it's a bit of a mystery.

ypsiliform - “shaped like the Greek letter upsilon.”  Again, this has a Y spelling because it’s derived from an archaic (and probably Old-French-derived) Y spelling of the Greek letter.  (Tangential fun fact: a near-synonym is arietiform meaning “shaped like a ram’s head” or, specifically, the astrological symbol for Aries.  When there are two fabulous words for something, how can you choose?  You just have to talk about Y-shaped things twice as often, I guess.)

ytterbium - a metallic rare-earth element (Yb), named for the Swedish town of Ytterby where it was found

yttria - “the oxide of yttrium.”  It’s also possible to make various other forms, such as the adjective yttric.

yttrium - another element (Y), also found near and named for Ytterby

yngling - a kind of sailboat designed in Norway in 1967, with a Norwegian name (meaning “youngster”)

Of course my dictionary doesn’t even include ypotryll, so it’s clearly not comprehensive!
The word ypotryll probably derives in part from Middle English ypotame from Old French, meaning “hippopotamus,” even though the hippo is one of the few animals that does not lend any body parts to the ypotryll.  Possibly it’s just the horse part (hippo- or ypo-) ultimately from the Greek, although the ypotryll doesn't include any horse genes, either.  What the -tryll is, no one seems to know.  Given that this beast appears to have been invented by some late medieval herald desperate for variety, it may simply be a completely random word that sounded good, just like the made-up names of creatures in modern fantasy.
        But the alphabet of mythical creatures doesn’t stop with ypotryll.  In fact, it’s suspiciously full of wild, hairy ape-men.  You have to click the link to read 

[Picture: Ypotryll in Springtime, rubber block print by AEGN, 2019.]

4 comments:

Deborah Weber said...

Yeah I'm a sucker for goofy grins, so ypotryll has stolen my heart as well. And with so few depictions available, I declare yours is definitive!

Rob Z Tobor said...

Definitely a hint of camel, but I could understand that a camel might confuse folk back in the days when folk did not get to travel much. except those that did which tended to be the lucky few up and down the Silk Road and the like.

As for the words . . I will add Ystradgynlais

I used to go to Ystradgynlais a lot, it's a funny place. I was doing IT support at the time (badly) and this was my furthest outreach. I'm sure there are many Wild Welsh Beasts lurking in the shadows around there.

Rob Z Tobor

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Deborah, I think the ypotryll is a Fool for you! =)

Rob, that's a most excellent place name. Of course, Welsh excels at marvelous place names -- and probably at wild and fascinating monsters, too. My favorite that I have discovered is the llamhigyn y dwr.

Frédérique said...

This ypotryll looks very friendly! Sorry, I don't know for Ylang Ylang ;)