turtle: interesting etymology
Posted: 11 June 2016 09:15 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I learned recently that the words ”tortoise” and “turtle” (and their homologues in French, Spanish, Italian, etc.) appear to be derived ultimately from Tartarus, the lowest depths of the classical underworld, from some medieval association of these unlovely, innocuous creatures with demons and demonic powers. Some dictionaries offer a more prosaic alternative, from Latin tortus, twisted (from the shape of the legs). I don’t know about Germanic tongues.

The classical Latin name for a tortoise, testudo, refers to the creatures’ hard carapace. Roman infantry advancing to attack, would sometimes form a sort of canopy of interlocking shields, to protect themselves from arrows and javelins; this was also called testudo.

Tartarus is a reminder of how steeped in superstition our medieval ancestors were (not that we’re much better nowadays: only the superstitions are different ones).

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Posted: 11 June 2016 01:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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lionello - 11 June 2016 09:15 AM

Some dictionaries offer a more prosaic alternative, from Latin tortus, twisted (from the shape of the legs). I don’t know about Germanic tongues.

Yes, no mention in OED of Tartarus. Here are the etymologies they give for tortoise and turtle.

tortoise, n.

Etymology: Found in 15th cent. in forms tortuca, tortuce, tortuge, tortu, tortuse, tortose. Tortūca (c1255 in Albertus Magnus Animal. 24 §126, 25 §59) was the late popular Latin name (see below), which later regularly became, as still in Provençal and Spanish, tortuga, and in French tortue. (Diefenbach cites also medieval Latin turtus, tortus.) Of the English forms, tortuce evidently represented the Latin, tortue and tortu the French, and the 16th cent. tortuga the Spanish form. Tortuse was probably a mere variant of tortuce (compare lettuce, letuse below); tortose and the later forms in -esse, -ise, -oise, being further variants, partly at least due to shifting of stress and obscuration of the vowel. The forms in final -s may have arisen simply from dropping -e mute; but some of them may have come from taking the possessive tortu’s, tortou’s, in tortou’s skin, tortue’s shell, as the nominative. The form tortoise appears c1569, preceded by tortoyse, 1552.
The late popular Latin or Romanic tortūca is commonly held to be a derivative of Latin tortus twisted, with the formative suffix seen in Latin carrūca, festūca, lactūca, verrūca, and to refer to the crooked feet of the south European species (Diez). With Latin tortūca, French tortue Italian testudine, testuggine

.

turtle, n.2

Etymology: apparently a corruption, by English sailors, of the earlier tortue , or the French original of this (see tortoise n.), assimilated to the known word turtle

The ‘known word turtle is turtle, n.1, turtle-dove, which is cited from c1000 and derives from the Latin turtur, an echoic name imitating the cooing of a dove. The first cite given for tortoise is 1398, for turtle, n.2 1657.

[ Edited: 11 June 2016 01:12 PM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 11 June 2016 02:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The OED entries are old, over a century. They’re correct, but they don’t go back far enough.

Merriam-Webster has this for the origin of turtle:

modification of French tortue, from Late Latin (bestia) tartarucha, feminine of tartaruchus of Tartarus, from Greek tartarouchos, from Tartaros Tartarus; from Mithraic and early Christian association of the turtle with infernal forces

And for tortoise:

Middle English tortu, tortuse, from Anglo-French tortue — more at turtle

American Heritage Dictionary on turtle:

[Alteration (influenced by TURTLE2) of Middle English tortu, from Old French tortue, ultimately (probably with influence from Old French tortu, crooked, and tordu, twisted, from the shape of its legs) from Vulgar Latin *tartarūca, feminine of *tartarūcus, of Tartarus (the turtle being a symbol of the forces of darkness in early Christian iconography), from Late Latin tartarūchus, from Late Greek tartaroukhos, occupying Tartarus : Tartaros, Tartarus + ekhein, to hold

And on tortoise:

Middle English tortuce, turtle, tortoise, probably partly from Anglo-Norman tortouse (variant of Old French tortue) and partly from Medieval Latin tortūca, both ultimately from Vulgar Latin *tartarūca, feminine of *tartarūcus, of Tartarus; see TURTLE1.

I looked up tortue in the Anglo-Norman Dictionary and this is the entry:

s. tortoise: Assez i out bestes sauvages ..., Vivres e tygres e tortues ...  S Gile 1236.

As for the Roman legion testudo formation, here’s a clip. From the HBO series Rome, it depicts Cassius as the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE.

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Posted: 11 June 2016 09:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Fascinating. So Tartarus it is. Thanks to Lionello for the initial post and to Dave for elucidating.

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Posted: 12 June 2016 05:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Hmm, I’m still not convinced.  There was a Greek tartarouchos in “άγγελος Ταρταρουχος,” but there it means ‘Tartarus-holding,’ not ‘turtle.’ Is there actual evidence that the Greek word could mean ‘turtle,’ or is it possible that the whole Tartarus thing is a folk-etymological explanation for a word actually derived from tortus?  It’s a nice idea, and I want to believe, but my inner skeptic tells me that the more interesting explanation is usually wrong.

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