March 19, 2014

Case File #014.03.19: OGRE

The English word ogre, meaning “a man-eating giant of fairy tales and folklore,” is essentially a direct borrowing of the French. And while etymologists and linguists aren't 100 percent certain as to how the French word itself originated, most believe that its roots ultimately trace back to the Latin Orcus, the name of the Roman god of the underworld and that of his domain, by way of the Italian orco (or one of its dialectical variants, orgo and ogro), which means “monster” or “demon.” Charles Perrault was the first French writer to use the word in print: it appeared in his Histoires ou Contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mère l'Oye (Stories or Tales of the Past, with Morals: Tales from My Mother Goose), which was originally published in 1697 and is better known to English speakers as The Tales of Mother Goose. It was not via Perrault's work that ogre passed into English, however, but through a 1713 translation of the French version of The Arabian Nights, one in which the translator inexplicably used the form hogre. And hogre it remained until circa 1786, when English speakers not only adopted the French spelling but also gave the word its secondary sense of “a particularly cruel, brutish, or terrifying person.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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