17 March 2007

Where does the word 'dolphin' come from?


In today’s episode, we will shed light on the ancient history of the word ‘dolphin’.

Have you ever wondered what the word for ‘dolphin’ was in other languages? Well, I’ve got a dictionary in front of me that provides simultaneous translations in 26 languages. Let’s have a quick look through, shall we? Let’s see…

English: dolphin
French: dauphin
Italian: delfino
Spanish: delfin
German: delfin
Dutch: dolfijn
Swedish: delfin
Lithuaina: delfina
Hungarian: delfin

Hey hold on a second, I think there might be a bit of a pattern here. The word ‘dolphin’ is pretty much the same in all of these languages. How can this be? Where did the word ‘dolphin’ come from that it became almost universal? In today’s episode, we will dig a bit deeper into this mystery to shed light on the ancient history of the word ‘dolphin’.

The study of the science of language is called linguistics, but the study of the origin and history of words is called etymology. This is not to be confused with the word entomology, which is the study of insects. I suppose the study of the origin of the word insect would be entoetymology. Or that the study of the origin of the word for insects living on the planet Endor would be endorentoetymology … But, I digress...

In our quest to solve the mystery of the origins of the word ‘dolphin’, our first step is to look up the word in a dictionary of Old English. Old English (otherwise called Anglo-Saxon) is the language spoken over 1,500 years ago in parts of what is present-day England. According to my dictionary, the Old English world for dolphin was … Delfin. Great. Well, this shows that “dolphin” has a root that is at least 1,500 years old in English, but that still doesn’t tell us where it came from originally. Incidentally, the world for dolphin in the many Celtic languages that were spoken at that same time in the British isles is not at all related to the word ‘dolphin’. In Early Irish, the word for dolphin is ‘muc mara’, and one of the words meaning ‘dolphin’ in Modern Welsh is ‘morwch’ (moruch).  Both of these words translate into English as ‘sea pig’– a perfectly descriptive, though not very poetic, word for a dolphin. In fact, many of the world’s languages use a phrase that means ‘sea pig’ to describe dolphins - for example, ‘iruka’ in Japanese, and ‘hai tun’ in Chinese. The English word ‘porpoise’ also comes from Germanic roots meaning ‘sea pig’ or ‘pig fish’. So, where do those crazy Angles and those nutty Saxons get the word dolphin? And, what does it mean?

Since our Old English dictionary was a bust, let’s have a look at an etymological dictionary – this should provide us with a detailed history of the word. The Online Etymological Dictionary gives the following definition:

c.1350, from O.Fr. daulphin, from Middle Latin dolfinus, from Latin delphinus "dolphin," from Greek delphis (gen. delphinos) "dolphin," related to delphys "womb,"

Ahah! So, it looks like the Angles and the Saxons borrowed the word ‘dolphin’ from the Ancient French, who borrowed the word from the Medieval Latin speakers, who apparently borrowed the word dolphin from the Ancient Romans (those are the guys speaking classical Latin), who in turn borrowed the word from the Greeks. The word was then handed down across the ages as each of these languages evolved and blended in to each other. So, it was the Ancient Greeks that originally gave us the word dolphin! This means that the word ‘dolphin’ has been kicking around since about 1,200 BC (Homer used it in both the Iliad and the Odyssey). According to this explanation, the ancient Greek word for dolphin is related to the word delphys (delphus) meaning ‘womb’. In fact, in ancient Greek, the word ‘delphus’ means both dolphin AND womb.

Womb? What on earth do dolphins have to do with wombs?

A little snooping around, and I managed to find a variety of theories about the relationship between a womb and a dolphin. I say “theories” because once you starting looking at words that are over 3,000 years old, a lot of etymology turns into guesswork. There are simply no 3,000-year-old Greek people who we can ask, so the history of a word must be pieced together from the times we see it written down, or derived from what we do know about the elements that make up that word in modern usage. In this case, we know that the Greeks derived the word for those funny animals that they saw splashing around in the Mediterranean from the word meaning ‘womb’, although it is possible that people even more ancient than the Greeks first used a word like ‘womb’ to describe a dolphin. In any event, I’ve found a variety of possible explanations as to why this association exists:

The first, that is the one that most dictionaries tend to favor is the relationship between the shape of a womb and the shape of a dolphin. That is, that a dolphin got its name by virtue of it resembling a womb. Maybe long long ago, an ancient Greek guy who was, for whatever reason, intimately familiar with the shape of internal organs, spied a dolphin frolicking in the waters and thought to himself “wow! That animal bears a striking resemblance to a uterus! I will tell all of my friends that and from now on this animal shall henceforth be known as ‘uterus’!” Well, it could have happened.

The second explanation is the relationship between the word dolphin and the idea that the word “dolphin/womb” was used to describe fraternal associations in human relationships. The word Adelphi means ‘of the same womb’ – a reference to the idea that two brothers once shared their mother’s womb and hence a strong bond. This is the same word root that you will find in the word Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. This explanation suggests that it was the fraternal and friendly behavior of the dolphins that caused the ancients to describe them as animals ‘of the womb’.

On a similar note, another explanation would consider the dolphins to be ‘our brothers of the sea’, an idea that dolphins and humans share a special bond. There is no doubt that the ancient Greeks had special affinity for the friendly dolphin; they appear in Greek art and mythology. Also, note that the temple of Delphi – that most ancient of oracle – is renamed after the dolphin because of the temple’s association with Apollo, a powerful Greek god who often took the form of a dolphin and who took control of the temple that now bears his nickname.

Lastly, there has been speculation that the Greeks called a dolphin a ‘womb fish’ for the simple reason that it was a kind of fish that had a womb, which is, of course, a uniquely mammalian organ. And also, that the reference to the womb is tied up with the idea that dolphins give birth to live young.

But, these are just some of the many explanations for the link between womb and dolphin that are circulating out there. As any avid Google-searcher knows, the internet is awash with a plethora of wild ramblings, musings, speculation, and unsubstantial gobbledygook. Armchair bloggers are free to invent any old explanation that they want in order to explain the connection between womb and dolphin. One explanation I found claimed that the ancients called dolphins ‘wombs’ because of their connection with The Greys. The Greys are those iconic big-eyed aliens associated with Roswell and various autopsy videos who, in this theory, are born of the watery heavens, hence the reference to the womb. It so goes that The Greys are in fact descendants of ancient dolphin species – a ‘dolphin-based life form’. Since the dolphins are associated with the gods and the Grays are related to dolphins and dolphin means womb … oh never mind, I don’t know what the heck is going on with the explanation, but you get the idea.

The point is that the word ‘dolphin’ is clearly related to the ancient Greek word ‘womb’ - for whatever reason. If you find that this association is too strange for you, feel free to switch over to the Celtic descriptions and call them ‘sea-pigs’.

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Dolphin Communication Project
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