TNQDE: Of Monsters and *men-

Our morning book club, ever my source of words to write about, produced a good one this morning. I’m very excited about it, too, because what could have been a pretty dull word turned out to be a fun little venture into the realm of things imagined.


The definition of monsters was not entirely what I would have predicted, so in spite of what I said about telling you to “look it up,” let me spend a moment on the definition. The primary meaning, according to the AHCD, is the one pertaining to legendary and often half-human creatures, such as centaurs, minotaurs, and the like. Only secondary to that is sense in which a monster is something visually frightening. Most of the normal definitions focus on something that is aberrant from normal phenotype parameters. A monster, then, is something normal that has been warped severely.

You might think, then, that the etymology would reflect that sort of distortion. It doesn’t, not even a smidge. “Monster” trudge along a very common road into English: Latin (monstrum) to Old French to Middle English (monstre) to Modern English (don’t make me spell it out for you). As the Old French isn’t different enough in form or meaning to be noted in the AHCD, let’s skip straight to the Latin. Monstrum comes from the verb monere, which means “to warn.” Monstrum can mean “monster” in a fairly modern sense, but it can also be a “portent.” This begs the question, of course: were monsters that which was warned against, or are they omens of what is to come? (This is an honest question here which might well have an answer–my knowledge of Latin and Greek lit, however, isn’t up to answering it.)

More fun still… the AHCD points to *men- as the PIE origin for monere. (If you recall, the asterisk denotes an imaginary root from a hypothetical language we call Proto-Indo-European.) The posited definition for this imagined word root is “to think.” So…the root of our relationship to that which evokes fear is our very ability to shape rational thought, hmm?

I’m not paranoid in my fear of robots, zombies, stupid humans, and other such monsters…I’m just using my mind. (And yeah, that’s the same PIE root in “mind” as in “monsters,” in case my razor sharp wit obscured the point.)

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