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Bears part 1 Previous Post: From teddy bears to berserkers – the language of bears (part 1)

From teddy bears to berserkers – the language of bears (part 2)

From teddy bears to berserkers – the language of bears (part 2)

Following on from the first instalment about the word bear, today’s post looks at real bears, fictional bears, and (of course) teddy bears.

A bear, or not a bear? That is the question.

Most taxonomists agree that there are eight species of bear in five genera in the world today. However this does not include the koala, native to Australia, and the red panda. Not everything we generally call a bear is in fact genetically a bear. There is much debate concerning the red panda but the most recent taxonomy has placed it in its own family, separate from the bear family, unlike the giant panda. There is likewise much debate about the etymology of the name panda, but it is thought to have come into English in the mid-19th century from Nepali.

The signature black and white markings of the giant panda have further impacted on the English language, however, as can be seen in the labelling of panda cars (an informal term for a black and white police car in Britain), panda crossing (again in Britain, a type of pedestrian crossing distinguished by black-and-white chevrons marked on the road), and panda eyes (dark rings caused by a lack of sleep, or by smudged makeup). The koala is an arboreal Australian marsupial completely unrelated to bears, despite it often being called (in non-technical usage) a koala bear, and its bear-like appearance. The name koala is thought to come into English in the 19th century from a now extinct Australian Aboriginal language called Dharuk, from the area around Sydney.

It can be said of many species that in naming them we, as humans, immediately anthropomorphize their appearance in order to differentiate them and relate them to the human world. A prime example of this is the Andean bear, commonly known as the spectacled bear – whose eyesight, I can assure you, is no worse than that of other bears – named after the markings on its face. The current earliest evidence for spectacled, by the way, comes from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

Spectacularly grisly

A spectacular name for a spectacular bear – can you tell it’s my favourite? However, this name is not specific to bears. Far from it, the array of bespectacled animals ranges from snakes and salamanders to guillemots and alligators. The name does more than anthropomorphizing this bear though, as in my mind it represents the bear as both harmless and vaguely ridiculous, conjuring up an image of a bear wearing spectacles like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Something one could not easily say about our next bear. Grizzly bear immediately brings to mind the bulky and ferocious predator. You might think this bear was named in such a way because of its size and temperament (its scientific name is Ursus arctos horribilis – meaning horrible or monstrous bear). However, you would be falling foul of a great English language confusable – the difference between grizzly and grisly. Grisly is an adjective for causing horror or disgust, such as a grisly crime, whereas grizzly is chiefly used in reference to the grizzly bear.

But what does grizzly mean? The grizzly in grizzly bear comes from the word grizzle, which refers to the silver tipped pelage this strand of the bear family exhibits. Grizzle is from the Old French grisel taken from the French for grey, gris. Indeed Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is currently the first recorded instance for the sense of grizzle meaning a sprinkling of grey hairs: O thou dissembling Cub: what wilt thou be When time hath sow’d a grizzle on thy case?

From Shakespeare to Silverlocks

Bears have also made an appearance through great works of literature, as can be seen by literature’s most famous (and alarming) stage direction when unfortunate Antigonus exits “pursued by a bear” in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Similarly the word bugbear originally demonstrated the more fearsome elements of a bear. Although the current sense simply means an object of dread, there is an earlier sense meaning a sort of hobgoblin (presumably in the shape of a bear) supposed to devour naughty children, currently first cited in the OED from 1581. By contrast, in much of children’s literature, as one might expect, bears are anthropomorphized. This occurs in stories such as The Three Bears, where interestingly the protagonist Goldilocks was originally known as Silverlocks, and is said to have first been referred to as Goldilocks in an anonymous collection of Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes published in around 1904. The word goldilocks, however, is far older: it goes back to the mid-16th century, when it referred (unsurprisingly) to golden hair or to a person with golden hair.

The likes of Yogi Bear with his penchant for picnic baskets, Paddington with his love for marmalade, and Winnie-the-Pooh with his honey addiction – something the sun bear, also known as the honey bear, is famous for – further add to the image of bears portrayed to us from our early years through our favourite stories or television programmes.

How the teddy bear got its name

The familiarizing of this noble creature does not end there. Have you ever asked yourself why of all the ferocious animals in the world, humans chose bears to accompany their sleeping children to bed? The teddy bear has certainly made bears seem more cuddly and approachable than they were formerly regarded. But where did the name teddy come from?

A. A. Milne playfully addressed this question in When We Were Very Young (1924): ‘is it Mr. Edward Bear?’ Teddy is indeed a pet form of the Christian names Edward, Edmund, and Theodore. The OED currently records the term teddy bear as being first used in 1906, and it is thought to have been named in humorous allusion to Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, president of the United States of America from 1901-1909.

But why was President Roosevelt associated with a bear? Roosevelt was a keen bear-hunter and his bear-hunting expeditions subsequently led to a celebrated comic poem, accompanied by cartoons, appearing in the New York Times in January 1906. This poem detailed the adventures of two bears named ‘Teddy B’ and ‘Teddy G’ and in the same year the poem published two bears named thus (also known as the ‘Roosevelt bears’) were presented to Bronx Zoo. Inevitably the fame of these bears was capitalized on by toy dealers, whose toy ‘Roosevelt bears’, imported from Germany, became instantly fashionable in the US. Indeed it wasn’t long before the teddy bear itself was famous enough for teddy bear to be used to describe a person’s appearance or one being lovable as can be seen in John Le Carré’s first novel Call for Dead (1961), to take an early example: His débutante secretary..referred to him..as ‘My darling teddy-bear’.

Heavenly bears

Bears have indeed been embedded in human culture for far longer than the brief but touching history of the teddy bear might imply. Names deriving from native forms for bear are cited often in Welsh and Irish genealogies. The Welsh for bear is arth or arthen, giving rise to the Gaelic personal name Art and possibly also Arthur. Furthermore Norse mythology tells of ancient warriors who fought with wild or uncontrolled ferocity, known as Berserkers. The Old Norse word berserkr is probably derived from a stem ber- meaning bear and serkr meaning coat, apparently meaning ‘clothed in bear-skin’. It has alternatively been suggested that the first element is berr meaning ‘bare’, implying that these warriors fought without armour. The word berserk meaning frenzied or furiously violent, as in the phrase to go berserk, originates from this.

Bears also have a presence in religion as the bear-goddess Artio, also known as Andarta, was venerated at what is now Berne (‘bear city’) in Switzerland.  Bears have even reached the dizzying heights of the night sky through the names given to two constellations in the northern hemisphere, known respectively as the Great Bear and Lesser Bear. In the UK, part of the Great Bear constellation is also often referred to as the Plough and in the US, part of the constellation is called the Big Dipper because it looks like a pan with a handle – and likewise part of the Little Bear is called the Little Dipper.

The productive and prolific nature of the word bear shows the influence an animal can have on the English language simply through its appearance and behaviour and how we interact with it. From Shakespeare to Roosevelt, and Paddington to Pooh, exploring the language of our grizzly friends has done nothing but ameliorate my adulation of this incredible animal. For all those who still are not won over by bears; firstly, shame on you. Secondly, why not look into the linguistic history of your favourite animal? You might be surprised by how much you find.

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