There’s an old, morbid joke which underscores the viciousness of bears. To paraphrase: “You and a friend are being chased by a bear. How fast do you have to run to survive?”
The answer? “Faster than your friend.”
When it comes to unintended interactions with wild animals, survival is job one — or, at least, that’s the point the joke tries to make. Even impractical “solutions” borne out of superstition are in play. Which is why we have bears in the first place.
Or, more accurately, why we have “bears” — as in, the word, not the animal.
According to the Etymology Online, the word “bear” is derived from the Proto-Germanic term “beron,” meaning “the brown one.” It’s not all that uncommon for words to be derived from descriptive terms; the initial names of things have to come from somewhere, after all. But “bear” is somewhat special because, apparently, “beron” wasn’t the animal’s first name. Rather, according to author Ralph Keyes, in the book “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms,” the term “beron” (and ultimately, “bear”), is a euphemism for the animal’s original name. Keyes expanded on his findings in an interview with TIME magazine:
Our ancient ancestors were so worried about bears, they didn’t even want to name them because they feared [the bears] might overhear and come after them. So they came up with this word — this is up in Northern Europe — bruin, meaning “the brown one” as a euphemism, and then bruin segued into bear. We know the euphemism, but we don’t know what word it replaced, so bear is the oldest-known euphemism.
Basically, the true name for bears was given the “Voldemort” treatment — saying it was taboo.
Keyes’ note that “we don’t know what word it replaced” is likely a slight exaggeration on the author’s part (or perhaps an over-reliance on technicalities). Proto-Germanic languages were a subset of Indo-European ones, used mostly by Northern Europeans, and the specific term that those peoples used for bears is likely lost to time. But other Indo-European languages used some variety of the term “htrkos,” a reference to the Arctic.
Nevertheless, the “htrkos” root is also one no longer in use, and for the same reason — cultures across Europe feared that using the animal’s “real” name would summon it, Beetlejuice-style. And to avoid having to run faster than their friends, the people of that era used a replacement term instead, one which remains today.
From the Archives: No Necks Allowed: Bears? Check. Iconic cartoon characters? Check. Random trivia? Well, obviously.
Related: “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms” by Ralph Keyes 4.4 stars on 17 reviews.