What do you call a unicorn with wings?
In the English-language pantheon of mythical equines, a horse with a single horn is a unicorn (from the Latin for ‘one horn’), and a horse with wings is referred to as Pegasus, from the name of the winged horse of Greek mythology which sprang from the blood of Medusa when Perseus cut off her head. Unicorns and Pegasi have in recent decades been joined in popular culture by another type of magical horse, sporting both a horn and wings, like the winged unicorn Gaudior in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) or 1980s heroine She-Ra’s magical mount Swift Wind. But is there a word for these animals?
Several terms for a winged unicorn (or horned pegasus) have been suggested, but none of them have been entered into Oxford Dictionaries, because they do not yet meet our evidentiary criteria for inclusion. Many of the contenders echo the chimeric nature of their referent by combining the word unicorn and pegasus in portmanteaus such as unisus, unipeg, and pegacorn, the latter being by far the most common. But another increasingly prominent term for a unicorn with wings is alicorn, a word which has a different and much longer history.
Alicorn is an English rendering of the Italian word alicorno meaning ‘unicorn’ (liocorno and unicorno are the usual modern Italian words) or ‘unicorn’s horn’. Although alicorno was a synonym of unicorn in Italian, its original use in English, in 1678, was with reference to an entirely different animal, resembling a bull with wavy horns, as shown in the image below.
1678 J. P. translation of John Johnstone A Description of the Nature of Four-footed Beasts
That meaning of alicorn faded away without ever becoming very widespread, but during the 20th century, another meaning of alicorn arose, referring specifically to the horn of a unicorn, or a medicinal substance said to be produced from such a horn. This usage was introduced by the American scholar Odell Shepard in his 1930 book The Lore of the Unicorn. Shepard commented in a footnote “I shall use the word ‘alicorn’ to mean ‘unicorn’s horn’ wherever it seems convenient to do so in the following chapters. This is not quite a neologism; it is an adoption of the Italian word alicorno”. This meaning has persisted in English, but now competes with the even newer meaning referring to a unicorn with wings.
My Little Pony
Prolific fantasy and sci-fi novelist Piers Anthony provides the earliest known citation for alicorn to refer to a horse with wings and a horn, in his novel Bearing an Hourglass from 1984:
“The Alicorn.” “The what?” “He be a winged unicorn, the finest equine flesh extant, the adoration of every fair and innocent maiden.”
The connection between the word alicorn and a winged unicorn cropped up from time to time in the intervening decades, but the breakout moment didn’t come until 2012, when the word was introduced in an episode of the cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic which featured a magical ‘alicorn amulet’. Alicorn came to be the standard term used in the series to refer to a special category of magical pony princesses sporting both a horn and wings. Although it wasn’t introduced into the series itself until 2012, alicorn was apparently in use earlier in the very active fandom of the series (whose neologizing prowess is also responsible for the coinage brony [from bro and pony], referring to an adult male fan).
In the race to join the English lexicon, pegacorn and alicorn are the frontrunners by a considerable distance, but in the long run alicorn probably has the edge. It isn’t as readily comprehensible as pegacorn, and it has the disadvantage of multiple meanings, but these points pale in comparison to its two major advantages. For one, it simply sounds more magical than the self-consciously humorous pegacorn. But more importantly, alicorn has a generational edge: millions of young English speakers who watch the My Little Pony television series are being introduced to the word alicorn alongside Pegasus and unicorn, and—if my own children are any indication—they will simply assume that alicorn is as established in English as the other two terms and adopt it in their own imaginative play. Ultimately, that may be all it takes to make it so.