In a Word: Sleeping in a Cemetery

Though it isn’t obvious today, the word ‘cemetery’ originally distanced us from the thought of buried corpses.

Flowers laid on tombstones in a cemetery
Magnus Binnerstam / Shutterstock

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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.

When we are forced to talk about difficult subjects, human nature is to talk around them rather than face them head-on, to use euphemisms to soften the emotional blow. Death is one of those difficult subjects. With just a few moments’ thought, you could likely come up with a dozen euphemisms for dying, from “passing on” to “joining the choir invisible.” What you may not recognize, though, is that the name for the place where we bury our dead — the cemetery — also began as a euphemism.

To blunt the impact of a direct reference to a burial site, early Christian writers chose the Latin word coemeterium, which reaches back to the Greek koimeterion “dormitory,” which derives from koiman “to put to sleep.” This wasn’t exactly an innovation in euphemisms; there are examples of ancient Greek writers using sleep as a euphemism for death. It isn’t a huge stretch from “a place where a lot of people sleep” to “a place where a lot of people sleep forever.”

Coemeterium entered French as cimitiere in the 12th century and was then adopted into Middle English (in a variety of spellings, but pronounced approximately the way cemetery is today) by the late 14th century.

What did English speakers call burial grounds before cemetery came along? They didn’t call them anything like graveyard, a term that developed during Benjamin Franklin’s lifetime, in the mid-18th century. No, Old English had the word licburg. Lic was an Old English word for “corpse, dead body,” which by the Middle English period more often appeared as lich, a word well-known to fans of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Burg in Old English referred to a collection of dwellings surrounded by a wall, like a fortified town, but it’s believed the word derives from an even earlier word meaning “hill.”

So take your pick for the meaning of licburg: “corpse town” or “corpse hill.” Either way, not the most euphemistic of names.

Featured image: Magnus Binnerstam / Shutterstock

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