October 28, 2022

Words of the Month - Grave Concerns

         With Hallowe’en looming, the veil is thinning, and many an unquiet spirit is no doubt waiting to come forth from its dark haven and roam the earthly plane once more.  But in the meantime, let’s take a look at some of their possible current accommodations.

sarcophagus - The Greek roots literally mean “flesh-eating,” which is certainly a vivid and visceral way to think of a coffin.  Actually the word applied first to the kind of limestone from which the coffins were made, and was called so because this type of limestone was supposed to decompose bodies especially quickly.  (It shares the Greek root for “flesh” with the word sarcasm, which is so sharp and bitter that it feels like it strips the flesh from your bones!)

coffin - The sarcophagus might eat humans, but humans used to eat coffins.  Although by the 1520s this word referred to the box in which a body is placed for burial, before that it mostly referred to the crust of a pie or pastry.  The primary meaning of the word was “a chest or box 
for valuables” (from Old French, and related to coffer), but from there is was an easy extension to the pastry “box” in which delicious food is baked and served, and eventually the box in which a body is consigned to the earth.

tomb - This one was originally simply a mound, and from burial mounds it transferred to other sorts of burials.  It may be related to catacomb, which might derive from Latin cata tumbas, “among the tombs” — but then again, perhaps not!  The word catacomb is, as they say, of obscure origin.  Which perhaps is fitting for the obscurity of what may happen after death.

- A proper crypt should be hidden, since that’s what the Greek root of the word means.  It’s the same root as in cryptic, cryptography, and so on.  Crypt came into English first as a “grotto or cavern,” and referred to an “underground burial vault” by the end of the eighteenth century, just in time for gothic romances.

grave - Despite my punning post title, the grave in which a corpse is buried is unrelated to the grave meaning “weighty, serious.”  The six feet under grave derives from an Old English root meaning “to dig,” still around in the word engrave, making it particularly appropriate that some of these illustrations are wood engravings.  Although graves of various sorts have been dug since time immemorial, people didn’t turn in their graves until about 1888.

cemetery - Coming into English in the late 14th century, by way of Old French, by way of Late Latin, the word comes from the Greek for “sleeping place, dormitory.”  The ancient Greeks had certainly used the metaphor or euphemism of sleep to refer to death, but it was the early Christians who first used the Greek word for “sleeping place” to refer to burial 
grounds.  Let’s hope their sleep remains quiet.

        So now you know where the bodies are laid, and should you encounter any of the spirits that may arise from them, you can refresh your memory with a prior episode: Words of the Month - Ghosts.

[Pictures: Sarcophagus of Torsten Stålhandske, wood engraving by J.E. from Sveriges Historia, 1877 (Image from British Library);

Tomb of Abelard and Heloise, wood engraving from Appleton’s European Guide Book, 1875 (Image from British Library);

Procession in Crypt, wood block print by M.C. Escher 1927 (Image from WikiArt);

Wood block print from Dicks’ English Library of Standard Works, 1884 (Image from British Library).]

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