“Why is it called that?”: The Dragon & Dragonfly Edition

This summer we were so busy chasing bunnies I got kind of behind on this blog’s core task: answering The Five-Year-Old’s questions. For those of you who like to keep score on these things, The Five-Year-Old’s pending question queue is now at a cheerfully daunting 183.

Fortunately, not all of these questions require terribly long answers, and even better, some of them fall into the same general category of wonderment. So as I’ve done before, I’d like to answer two of The Five-Year-Old’s questions at once. Here goes…

“Why are dragons called dragons?”

(Image: Pearson Scott Foresman)

According to our trusty OED, once upon a time the English were in need of a word to describe very large serpents. So sometime between 1150 and 1349 AD, they appropriated the word dragon from the French.

Presumably the French were ok with that, because you know they hadn’t come up with the word dragon all by themselves either. They’d derived it from the Latin word draco (dracon-).

And as any scholar of Roman mythology can tell you, the Romans borrowed a lot of stories from the Greeks. Their cultural indebtedness apparently extended to more than one tale concerning δράκων — I mean drakon — I mean serpents, because my copy of the OED seems pretty convinced that the origins of the Latin word draco can be found in the Greek drakon.

“Why are dragonflies called dragonflies?”

Yellow-winged Darter (Image: André Karwath)

Unfortunately, we don’t have the full OED here at Caterpickles Central. Instead we must make do with the Shorter OED, Fifth Edition, which does not have a separate entry on dragonflies. It merely includes the definition of dragonfly under the Comb. & special collocations section of the main dragon entry. And that means it’s time to venture into the wild and woolly world of the Internet.

According to the British Dragonfly Society, the earliest reference to dragonflies in literature can be found in Francis Bacon’s 1626 opus Sylva Sylvarum: or a Naturall Historie in Ten Centuries.

Cover of Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, available through Google eBooks.

In between expounding on the causes of drought in Egypt and hiccups in man, Bacon found time to describe the predatory insect we call a dragonfly. It would be nice to know why Bacon decided to call this wee beastie a dragonfly instead of the more colorful Adder Bolt, Devil’s Riding Horse, or Devil’s Darning Needle. Perhaps he thought dragonfly sounded more science-y.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, Bacon’s book doesn’t provide 1,000 years worth of historical insights into the natural world. Instead the phrase Ten Centuries in the title refers to the fact that Bacon divided his book into ten chapters, each of which contains 100 different speculative essays, experiments, observations, and assorted ancient teachings.

Whew! Only 181 questions to go…

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