Friday, August 13, 2010

Etymology of Monster


Following yesterday's etymology of money and its curious relationship to a warning from the gods, I spent a little bit of time before work this morning looking over some other similar words that have related roots. As the second part of what might be a series of posts on this dysfunctional family of divinely rooted words, the etymology of monster gives us a good picture of what we might be getting into here. The final Latin root for monster is monstrum, meaning "an omen, supernatural being or object that is an omen or warning of the will of the gods." Monstrum, as it turns out, is derived from monere, "to warn or to advise, particularly in a divine sense," and the same root as money.

Monster entered the English language between the 12th and 14th centuries from the Old French term monstre, and it appears the monstre was used in Middle English as either an evil omen or frightening physical deformity well into modern English when it became monster. One of the earliest examples of monstre being used in the sense that it is used today appeared in 1385 in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women when discussing a minotaur that inhabits the underworld:

This Mynos hadde a monstre, a wiked best,
That was so crewel that, withoute arest,
Whan that a man was brought in his presence,
He wolde hym ete; ther helpeth no defence.

Monster came to also mean huge or enormous around 1500 and soon came to describe things that were figuratively absurd, such as a particularly disturbing thought. While the original meaning of monstrum as an omen is no longer present in the modern monster, this sense lingers on in words derived from the OF and ME monstre like premonition, demonstrate and muster, which will be the target for another related posting somewhere down the line.

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