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Bears part 1

From teddy bears to berserkers – the language of bears (part 1)

There is a bear alongside me as I write this post. That bear is named Brutus and is famous for being the best man at naturalist Casey Anderson’s wedding – sadly though the bear in question is only on my desktop background (and not available as a best man in general; I checked). This internet sensation along with hundreds, nay thousands, of his grizzly fellows is just part of what makes the bear my favourite animal. That’s all very well and good, I hear you say, but what can bears have possibly contributed to English? Well bear with me. Bears themselves have contributed very little in all honesty, but read on to see how our perception of bears and the labels we have given them are displayed in the English language.

In this first post, I shall examine some of the various meanings of bear and some related words; in the second instalment, I shall turn my attention to the naming of various species, bears in literature, and (of course) teddy bears.

The word bear goes back to Old English bera and is of West Germanic origin, with related words in many other languages such as Dutch beer, German Bär, and Old Norse björn. The first instance in English currently recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary of a bear – defined as a large, heavy mammal which walks on the soles of its feet, having thick fur and a very short tail – is from around 1000 AD in the writings of Ælfric of Eynsham, a Benedictine abbot and scholar. The word bear has, over the years, developed a number of different senses and meanings, as well as a number of related words and idioms.

Bear or bare?

The word bear has both homonyms (words which have the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings) and the homophone bare (homophones being words with the same pronunciation, but different spellings or meanings). The various meanings of bear as a noun might be confusing to language-learners, as any homonym can be, but even native English speakers sometimes confuse the verb bear (which has nothing to do with the animal, but which means ‘carry’ or ‘put up with’) with its homophone bare, a verb meaning ‘uncover, reveal’ (he bared his chest), or an adjective meaning ‘naked’ (his chest was bare). Find out more about bear vs bare.

The many meanings of bear

Other meanings of the noun bear include: a policeman (in the US – perhaps linked to the name of an animal character used in US fire-prevention advertising called Smokey Bear); a rough, bad-mannered, or uncouth person; a large, heavy, or cumbersome man; and, in gay culture, a large, hirsute homosexual or bisexual man. Bear also has multiple meanings within the realm of the stock market. In the stock exchange a bear is a person who sells shares hoping to buy them back later at a lower price. The OED notes that this sense of bear first appears early in the 18th century, and was common at the time of the South Sea Bubble. The term bearskin jobber, then applied to the dealer now called the bear, makes it probable that the original phrase was ‘sell the bearskin,’ and that it originated in the proverb, ‘to sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear’.

Bears are not only present in proverbs but in idioms as well. In British English it can be said that an irritable person is like a bear with a sore head and in the US one can be said to be loaded for bear, meaning you are fully prepared for any eventuality.

The term bear-hug has come into English meaning a powerful and enveloping embrace, either as a hearty expression of affection or greeting, or as a means of restraint, and is currently first recorded in the OED as far back as 1846. You might imagine that bear squeeze would have a similar meaning, and in actual fact, you wouldn’t be wrong. There is a rare early sense which means precisely this. However, the most common modern sense is used to refer to the financial pressure experienced by the aforementioned stock market bears.

The broad interpretation of the word bear in our language is illustrated perfectly by the following phrases chiefly used in the US: to be a bear is to be someone who is exceptionally gifted, adept, or persistent, whereas to be a bear of a situation, for example a fight, denotes something particularly arduous or fraught with difficulty.

The second part of this blog post will appear next week. Bear with me, and I shall bare all about real bears, fictional bears, and, last but not least, teddy bears…

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