On the origins of bears, and words for bears

A poem by Simon Armitage called “The Great Bear” (from CloudCukooLand, 1997) has a few things to say about, and to, a bear – or bears in general. The poem is modelled as a set of ratifications (“it’s right… And right…” etc.) of ursine legends and myths, actual and invented:

 [embedded from Google Books]

The about/to distinction is relevant because in the middle of the poem the voice temporarily shifts from addressing the subject directly, to saying something about it (or its species) in the third person:

And right that the cubs are born as formless lumps,
licked into shape by a mother’s tongue,

(the cubs… a mother’s tongue…). Some might know about this bear legend, and might know it as the origin of the phrase “to lick into shape”, which OED glosses thus (s.v. lick, v):

4. to lick (a person or thing) into (shape, etc.), also †to lick over: To give form and regularity to; to mould, make presentable. Alluding to the alleged practice of bears with their young.

It also informs the sense of cub (OED  fig. 3.a), meaning “An undeveloped, uncouth, unpolished youth,” which is clear from the earliest two OED quotations, especially Congreve’s (1687), even though the legend fades out of view in the later quotes.

1601 Shakes. Twel. N. v. i. 167 O thou dissembling Cub: what wilt thou be When time hath sow’d a grizzle on thy case?
1687 Congreve Old Bach. iv. viii, A country squire, with the equipage of a wife and two daughters‥But, oh gad! two such unlicked cubs!
1723 Steele Consc. Lovers i. i, Like a bashful, great, awkward cub as you were.
1855 Thackeray Newcomes I. 64 He thinks it necessary to be civil to the young cub.
1884 Hunter & Whyte My Ducats iv. 62, I know the young cubs you’ll have to teach.

As for the origins of the legend itself, they go way back to early Antiquity.  Saint Isidore of Seville, the great medieval collector of facts and etymologies (who presented most facts as etymologies), saw lexical offspring in the tale, explaining the origin of the Latin word ursus as coming from this belief:

The bear (ursus) is said to be so called because it shapes its offspring in its “own mouth” (ore suo), as if the word were orsus, for people say that it produces unshaped offspring, and gives birth to some kind of flesh that the mother forms into limbs by licking it.

(Isidore himself knew that bear cubs were simply born immature, not unformed).

Now orsus itself means, primarily, a “web”, but also “A beginning,  commencement” (OLD), as of a narrative, or song, or poem. Statius in the Achilleid, when setting up the beginning of a speech, writes Hic Ithacus pallum repetito longius orsu, (Then Ithacan [King], going way back to the start of events, [said]…). And Maurus has Sed carminis orsum peragat debita finis.

I don’t know the origins of Armitage’s own entanglement in this web of stories about bear- and word- formation. But in addition to the lapse into the third person for in just these two lines, and the presence of the stock phrase “licked into shape”, the word lump strikes me as possibly pointing to a textual source.

I guess this is because of how unlatinate lump sounds, in contrast to the classical sources of the ursine stories. Maybe the word just struck him. Or maybe it stuck with him, from one of these classic translations, or their derivatives:

…thirty Days after they produce their Cubs, commonly five at a Time. These are a Lump of white un- formed Flesh, a little bigger than Rats, without Eyes, and without Hair; only the Claws are put forth. This Lump, by licking, they fashion by little and little…
-Pliny’s Natural History VIII.36 trans. Philemon Holland (1601)

the bear bringeth forth a piece of flesh imperfect and evil shapen, and the mother licketh the lump, and shapeth the members with licking. . . . For the whelp is a piece of flesh little more than a mouse, having neither eyes nor ears, […] and so this lump she licketh, and shapeth a whelp with licking”
-Bartholomew the Englishman’s, De proprietatibus rerum trans. John Trevisa (c.1400) as Medieval Lore (1893)


  • I’m surprised you don’t comment on the penultimate line, which clearly refers to the euphemisms for the animal in many IE languages, notably ‘brown’ in Germanic and ‘honey-eater’ in Slavic. (For that matter, *rktos doesn’t exactly look like a proper PIE root either.)

    Do you know what story the final line refers to? Dr. Google is unhelpful today.

  • D-AW wrote:

    John Cowan is referring to this phenomenon (as explained in AHDIER):

    The Proto-Indo-European word for “bear”, rtko- … in northern branches has undergone taboo replacement. The names of wild animals are often taboo to hunters; that is, uttering them is forbidden. The actual name can be distorted in what is called taboo deformation (compare English Judas Priest, Jiminy Cricket for Jesus Christ) or entirely replaced with a descriptive moniker in taboo replacement (compare English rack for antlers among deer hunters). The Old Irish word art, in fact, was no longer the ordinary word for bear, but was instead used as a personal name. … Among the new expressions for “bear” were “the good calf” in Irish, “honey pig” in Welsh, “honey eater” in Russian, and “the licker” in Lithuanian. English bear and its other Germanic cognates are also the result of taboo replacement, as etymologically they mean “the brown one” (see bher-3).

  • There’s some mention of this about the eyeball on the web, but nothing like a proper source. Though apparently Ibn Bakhtishu says the bear’s eyeball wards off malaria when worn upon the sleeve.

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