Aug 12, 2015

Etymology Expeditions: Arthuriana

This week's theme is words associated with King Arthur and his knights of the round table, 'cause I kind of have that on the brain from my visit to Tintagel.

Let's start with the wizard himself, Merlin. It's funny; according to the Online Etymology dictionary, "merlin" had different origins than "Merlin." Let's start with the common noun. The word "merlin" comes from merilun, shortened form of Old French esmerillon, "merlin, small hawk." But then there's the name, Merlin, the one we're actually interested in. That comes from Old French form of  Welsh Myrddhin, probably from Old Celtic Mori-dunon (mori=sea, dunon=hill), "of the sea-hill."

Fits with that cave at Tintagel, doesn't it?

Speaking of Tintagel, the etymology of the name isn't completely clear. It is probably Norman French rather than of Cornish origin because of the soft 'g,' but if it is Cornish, then Din would mean "fort," and Tagell "throat, constricted." Dun + -tagell would mean "narrow place."

What about Arthur, then? Arthur comes from Medieval Latin Arthurus/Arturus, from Welsh arth "bear," Latin version ursus. Arthur's famous sword, Excalibur, also has an interesting etymology. It comes from Old French Escalibor,  corruption of Caliburn, from Welsh Caledvwlch, a corruption of the legendary Irish sword Caladbolg, meaning "hard-belly." To find out more about Caladbolg, click here.

Moving on to Arthur's legendary castle and court, Camelot comes from Latin Camuladonum, the Roman forerunner of Colcherter. Donum would mean gift, but I can't find out what the Camula part is. Camurus is hooked, bent, and camum is some kind of beer, but we'd probably need to ask someone who speaks Latin. Camula apparently means "woodworm," too, but, somehow I doubt that's it:)

Now to explore a few other key players in the legend: Lancelot is a double-diminutive of Frankish Lanzo, from "land", it later became associated with french lance, meaning "spear" or, indeed, "lance,"
and Guinevere comes from Welsh Gwenhwyvar, "white-cheeked."

Mordred comes from Welsh Medraut, "uncertain." That's about right.

Morgan Le Fay comes from Old Welsh Morgen, "sea-born." Le fay from French la Fée "the fairy." She might also be connected with morgens, which are Welsh or Breton water spirits that drown men. They lure men to death with their own beauty or with glimpses of underwater gardens of buildings of gold or crystal. According to Wikipedia, the drowning of Ys, a city in Brittany, was caused by the king's daughter Dahut, who becomes a sea morgen. In another tale a fisherman adopts an infant morgen only to lose her when she grows up and returns to her parents' underwater palace.

Avalon probably comes from Welsh Ynys Afallon, from ynys "isle" and afal meaning "apple." Magical life-giving or healing apples are ubiquitous in mythology. I wonder if the reader is meant to make this connection, too?

Names have power, don't they? From a world-building point of view this is really fascinating. It matters what you name things, it really does. See the kind of depth the right word can bring?


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