The Great Disappearing (and Reappearing) Bear
March is the month when the great bears of northern climates begin to emerge from their long winter’s naps. Adult male grizzly bears are usually the first to emerge, willing and able to upend garbage containers that literally weigh a ton if they smell something good to eat. This impressive natural drama of powerful animals rising from months of deathlike stillness in the earth might help explain why so many human cultures have revered bears, associating them with resurrection and other supernatural things. Bears still occupy an interesting place in our imaginations, and it’s reflected in our language. We terrify children with stories of bugbears, but then we comfort them with teddy bears. The grumpy plodding of a bearish market makes a lot of people very nervous, but then the bad mood can be dispelled with the heartfelt power of a bear hug. In Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, the dramatic image of the bear provides one of the weirdest and funniest stage directions in English theatre: Exit, pursued by a bear.
This Word Stories instalment highlights some surprising ways that bears pop up in the history of the English language, beginning with the fact that the native English word for “bear” has mysteriously gone missing.
The English noun bear is derived from the Old English word for the same animal (bera). This Germanic root is thought to be derived in turn from a lost proto-Indo-European word denoting something brown (brûno). As far as etymological developments go, this all seems relatively straightforward until you realize that Germanic languages like Old English already had a perfectly good Indo-European way to refer to bears. The word sounded something like arkto, and it gave rise to the Greek arktos, the Latin ursus, and the French ours. This is why the adjective arctic means “northern” in English. Arctic refers to the northern constellation of the Great Bear, Ursa Major.
For some reason, Germanic speakers didn’t pass down their original word for bear. Apparently, they preferred to speak in indirect terms about “the brown one”. One dominant explanation suggests that the tribes involved were afraid to talk about bears openly. Speaking the name of the awe-inspiring creature name might profane its power - or attract its attention.
The word berserk, as well as the lesser-known noun berserker, go back to the fierce Norse warriors called berserkir, and in fact the first appearances of the name in English use the old Norse spelling (W. Scott, Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, 1814). Berserkers were apparently named for the forbidding bear skins they wore. It’s worth noting, for example, that even In Old English bera means “bear” and serk means “tunic”.
Berserkers are depicted in the old sagas as a special class of soldiers who fought in a kind of wild fury. They might bite their shields, froth at the mouth, or mow down fighters on their own side if they got too close. This legendary frenzy has been explained scientifically in a variety of ways, ranging from shamanic bear-cult ecstasy to psychedelic drugs. Wherever it came from, though, the infamous berserker frenzy suggested to later English speakers that one might act in a “berserk” way (C. Kingsley, Yeast, 1851), or “go berserk” (R. Kipling, A Diversity of Creatures, 1917). These new adjectival and adverbial forms ended up becoming far more common in English than the original noun berserker.
The “Great She-Bear” Ursa Major is one of the most ancient and well-known constellations in the night sky. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy lists the name as traditional in his second-century Algamest, alongside the nearby Little Bear (Ursa Minor). Because Ptolemy is writing in Greek, though, he refers to the larger far-north constellation as Arktos Megalē - recalling the lost proto-English word for bear that can still be glimpsed today in the word arctic. The biblical book of Job refers similarly to the constellation of “the Bear” (similarly rendered as Arcturus in the Greek, Latin, and first English versions of the Bible). Perhaps most impressively, several Eurasian and North American cultures share astrological stories about the Great She-Bear in the northern sky. Given that the most recent land crossing of the Bering Strait happened 10,000 years ago, Ursa Major may therefore represent an astoundingly old image.
The first English literary references to Ursa Major follow the tradition of referring to the constellation as Arcturus “the Bear” (Chaucer, De Consolatione Philosophiae, 1374; Trevisa, De Proprietatibus Rerum, 1398). Before too long, though, the Great Bear was eclipsed in the popular stargazing imagination by the asterism within it that looks like a water dipper. English speakers only started talking about “the Big Dipper” in the 19th century (M. A. Henderson, Song of Milgenwater, 1856), but most anglophones in the Northern Hemisphere today are familiar with both the asterism and the name. Far fewer English-speaking stargazers know that when they trace this Big Dipper, they’re also looking at Ursa Major the Great She-Bear.
Discover interesting etymological notes in the Antidote Historical Dictionary.