The etymological identity crisis of Arctic bears

A fascinating read about bears and the Arctic and how their etymological histories are based on anonymity and opposites. The link to the Slovak Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh where the below quote is from is dead so here it is from the Boing Boing article:

The Old Slavic people (the linguistic ancestors of today’s speakers of, e.g., Slovak, Polish, Croatian), Old Germanic people (the linguistic ancestors of today’s speakers of, e.g., English, German, Norwegian), and Old Baltic people (the linguistic ancestors of today’s speakers of Latvian and Lithuanian), who lived next to each other and interacted for many generations, came to believe that if you call the bear by his true name, he would hear and understand, and you would fail to catch him, or he would come to harm you. The bear was the only really dangerous animal in their woods. The original word artko was tabooed. Such beliefs about not calling prey and danger by their “true” names are not uncommon among hunters and people in general through the present.

And then there’s the etymology of the Arctic which basically means “the place of the bear” and Antarctica means the opposite of the place of the bear.

On the surface level, this makes for a rather literal and simplistic naming convention for the planetary poles. The Arctic, the place of the bear, has Polar Bears; Antarctica, the opposite of the place of the bear, does not have polar bears.

That all tracks. Until you remember that “bear” is just a placeholder name for That Big Furry Beast That We’re Too Scared To Mention. And so, the Arctic was technically named as the “place of the thing that shall not be named.” By extension, the name of Antarctica exists in direct reference to that signifier, which itself is a reference to something that shall not be named—literally, “the opposite of the place of the thing that shall not be named.”

I don’t know about you but I want to know what the bear’s real name is!

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