This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Word To Use Today: phoenix

Ah, yes, the phoenix, that mythical bird reborn from its own ashes. The word is used figuratively to mean that which rises again after being destroyed, like the city of Phoenix, Arizona, which was founded in 1867 on the site of a settlement of the Hohokam Indian people who populated the land from 300 B.C - 1450 A.D.

Now, the probability is that the phoenix was named because of its looks, which is odd, because of course no one can actually know what a phoenix looked like.

Pliny described it as having a crest, and Ezekiel the Dramatist said it looked a bit like a cockerel: but according to Tacitus the thing that really made the bird stand out from all others were its colours, which according him and various other Romans were either a bit like those of a peacock, or bright red (which included what we'd today call purple) and yellow.

In size they say it was somewhere between an eagle and an ostrich's big brother - but then those Romans would say anything.

Anyway, as time went on and nobody managed to get hold of an actual live phoenix, gradually the phoenix began to be put together in people's minds with a similar word, one that described a whole people: that is, Phoenician.

To encourage the confusion between the purple phoenix and the Phoenicians, the Phoenicians were great traders and tended to be regarded as coming out of the red-purple sunrise; they also tended to have purple stripes on their sails, which were dyed with stuff from the murex shellfish.

To make things even more complicated, Dido (the one who threw herself on a funeral pyre because her boyfriend decided to go on a sailing trip) was herself a Phoenician - though as far as I know no one has ever suggested poor Dido rose again.

Word To Use Today: phoenix. This word comes from the Old French fenix, via Latin from Greek phoinix which means Phoenician, reddish purple, or phoenix. The original sense might be purple.

Isidore of Seville in the 600s said that the word comes from the Arabic word for singular, but most people don't agree.


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