Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
During October, people turn their thoughts to the gruesome and grotesque as they gear up for the Halloween season. That applies to logophiles as well, and one of the most grotesque etymologies I know is for that staple of horror films, the sarcophagus, the stone coffin whose top slowly scrapes open to release the hungry undead onto an unsuspecting world.
The word sarcophagus isn’t, as you might think, derived from some ancient word for death or cadaver or coffin. It’s much creepier than that.
As the story goes, during ancient times, the people of Troas — an area on the northeast coast of Asia Minor in present-day Turkey — discovered a type of limestone with a useful characteristic. The stone (lithos in Greek), hastened the decomposition of dead bodies. It seemed to eat through the rotting flesh, so they used it to build stone coffins or sometimes just dropped some of it in when they buried their dead.
Whether the limestone was actually reactive in this way is up for debate. A primary source of the story is Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar and polymath from the first century AD who, though his contributions to history and science were great and long lasting, believed in magic, was superstitions, and tended to exaggerate.
Regardless, that stone from Troas was called, in the local Greek tongue, lithos sarkophagos — sarko- from the Greek word for “flesh,” and -phagos from phagein, “to eat.” Lithos sarkophagos literally translates as “flesh-eating stone.”
Rome borrowed the word into Latin as the noun sarcophagus, and it came to refer not to the stone itself, but specifically to the stone coffin.
The same roots that gave us sarcophagus also informed scientific jargon. Organisms that eat flesh — some bacteria, maggots, zombies — are called sarcophagous (note the additional o) or sarcophagic. So while a sarcophagus itself isn’t sarcophagous, what is inside and trying to get out may well be.
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