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February 28, 2020  |  Friday words #209  |  585 hit(s)

As the old joke goes, why should you never believe a minotaur? Because half of everything they say is bull. HAHA. Which brings us to this week's new-to-me word: therianthrope. A therianthrope is a creature that combines features of an animal with features of a human. The term comes from Greek: therion ("wild animal") + anthropos ("human being").

From the basic premise, we get three slightly distinct meanings. One meaning describes something that's a half-and-half mix. The minotaur is one example, as are satyrs (man+goat[1]), centaurs (human+horse), and merpersons (human+fish). Not to mention the Egyptian gods Meretseger (woman+snake), Bastet (cat+woman), and Taweret (hippo+woman).

A different sense of therianthrope is a creature that can shift between a human and animal shape—something that "exhibits its animal and human aspects serially rather than simultaneously," as Michael Quinion put it. A part-time animal, as it were. This type of therianthrope is represented by werewolves, vampires, selkies, and a variety of other creatures from world mythology.[2]

Finally, you'll find therianthrope (or just therian) used to refer to a person who "experiences being and identifies as a non-human animal on an integral, personal level," as the Therian-Guide.com site defines it. This is in the constellation of otherkin culture.

I ran across this word back in December when reading about the discovery of some cave paintings that seem to show therianthropic images. The paintings are believed to be about 45,000 years old, which suggest that people in 43,000 B.C. probably had religious or myth-ious beliefs, able to imagine creatures that did not exist. An exciting find!

For origins today I have an unexpected pair. Let's start with achieve, which is "to complete, accomplish." This came to us from old French, where it was a chef—"to (a) head," as in bring to a head. As you'd guess, the -chieve part is the same root that has given us many "head" words: chef, chief, captain, cap, and decapitate, to name only some obvious cousins. (The word head is ultimately from the same root.)

A surprise to me was that achieve is related to the Spanish verb acabar, which means "to finish, complete." (La fiesta se acabó, "The party came to an end.") When I see achieve and acabar side by side, the relationship seems a lot more obvious.

Another surprise was that achieve has a relative I'd never recognized: mischief. The word mischief is a noun for us today, meaning "misfortune," but you can see that it's the same construct: mis-("bad") + -chief ("head, outcome"). And there used to be a verb mischief meaning "to do harm," although that sense is rare after the 1600s.

While reading about this, I also learned that mischief has softened considerably since its introduction into English. These days it has a playful air to it, enough so that it's used a lot in brand names. But it originally was a bad condition indeed, as we see in the book of Deuteronomy: "I will heap mischiefs upon them; I will spend mine arrows upon them." That's a kind of mischief I'd rather not see.

[1] I think only man+goat, not woman+goat?

[2] We're currently watching The Outsider on HBO, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, and it seems that a therianthrope might be playing a role.

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