January 22, 2014

Case File #014.01.22: UNICORN

As you may know, myths, legends, and folktales involving the unicorn have been around since antiquity. Images of the unicorn appeared in the governmental seals of the Indus Valley Civilization (a bronze-age culture that was roughly concurrent with ancient Egypt), ancient Greek writers referred to the animal in numerous texts, and even Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder described the beast in his notable encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia (Natural History). But in the overall history of the mythical creature, the word unicorn and its immediate antecedents are relatively new. First appearing in the English lexicon at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the noun derived from the Old French unicorne, which in turn descended from the Vulgar Latin noun unicornus. And the Vulgar Latin noun itself evolved from the classical Latin adjective unicornis, which meant “having one horn” and was probably originally used to describe not the mythical unicorn but the real-world rhinoceros.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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