Of Horses, Horns, Wings, and Tails

Feb. 26th was National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, so this seems a fine time for an adventure into the wilds of words and mythical beasts.

What do you call a unicorn with wings? The Oxford English Dictionary blog once posed that question. As a word nerd with a passion for mythical beasts, that fired my interest! The blog, sadly, was taken down, but it gave several possible answers. Since that venerable and wide-reaching source gave no one definitive answer, I have to conclude there isn’t one.

A search of the web similarly brings up lots of possibilities, including pegacorn, unipeg, unisus and other portmanteau combinations of unicorn and pegasus. I have to say to my eye and ear these seem rather inelegant and clunky, conjuring up images of flying pigs and peg-legged unicorns. Cerapter is a clever alternative, from the ancient Greek keras for horn and pteros for wing.* To me it has a sort of dinosaurian flavor, though.

And then there is Alicorn. This is a lovely and historic old word I first encountered in my copy of The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shepherd.

Cover of the Lore of the Unicorn

He traces Alicorn back to 14th century Italian and later Arabic; he uses the term to mean the horn of a unicorn,** a most precious, almost sacred object. It was the sovereign antidote to all poison, and it could heal the sick, even of the dreaded Plague.

In the dark corner of a museum, I once had the privilege of seeing an Alicorn. Well, at least its mortal cousin.

Narwhal skull and tusk
A Mortal Alicorn

This is the skull of a narwhal, found in a whaling museum. I’d never seen one before, though I’d read about them. It gave me a shiver of pleased recognition to lay eyes on it.

Alicorn is a word of both elegance and substance to my mind. But since it already refers to something other than a winged unicorn (or horned pegasus), I’d suggest a slight variation. My proposal: alacorn, from the Latin āla for wing and cornū for horn. (Like cerapter, only without connotations of velociraptors and pterodactyls.)

Now for a somewhat related question: what do you call a sea-going unicorn?

For example, this magnificent beast:

Hipporn by Sarah Minkiewicz
Hippicorn by Sarah Minkiewicz

This incredible creature is the work of the artist Sarah Minkiewicz (bought for me as a gift from her Zazzle store).

It is called a Hippicorn, and since that name was given by its creator, there can be no more fitting title. Hippicorn is a doubly hybrid word, a portmanteau of hippocampus (from Greek roots) and unicorn (from Latin). More on that later.

Some might wonder what a hippocampus is.*** I’m so glad you asked! (Pretend you did, even if you didn’t.)

A hippocampus is a mythic seahorse, the equine equivalent of a mermaid. Sometimes it has a dolphin-like tail, sometimes a fishy one. Here’s a fine one found on Cape Cod. It seems to have a fondness for jewelry and scarves.

carved hippocampus in shop window
An Elegant Hippocampus

The name is from ancient Greek, hippos for horse, kampos for sea monster. It is, I think, a close cousin to the campchurch, which is another kind of sea-going unicorn, but rather different from Sarah Minkiewicz’s wild hippicorn. It has no tail, but webbed hind feet. Here it is where I first encountered it in one of my favorite childhood books.

illustration of campchurch
from Georgess McHargue’s Beasts of Never

Here the marine cousins are together:

illustration of campchurch and hippocampus
Cavorting Together

And here is another close relative, found in the same whaling museum as the alicorn, carved out of whale ivory.

whale ivory hippocampus pie crimper
Bicorn Hippocampus?

Because I am a word nerd, I wondered where the “church” in campchurch came from. Webster’s Unabridged dictionary was, alas, no help. Even the massive Oxford English Dictionary was silent on the matter. Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon of Ancient Greek vouched for the antiquity of hippocampus, but had no trace of campchurch.

An online search brings up a lot of opportunities for worship while camping, but very little about sea-unicorns. I found one woodcut image of a campchurch from 1575 – walking flat-footed on dry land!

Could the “church” of campchurch have come from the modern meaning of house of worship? It seemed unlikely, but Webster’s and the OED do agree that “church” is derived from the ancient Greek kyriakon, and ultimately kyrios, lord and kyros, supreme power. Could campchurch mean something like the lord of sea monsters? I’m left to wonder…But Sarah’s hippicorn is certainly a lordly beast!

I also wonder what else might one call a horned hippocampus or marine unicorn? What about mericorn? (I think I kind of like that).

The truth is, if I should ever be so fortunate as to see any of these mythical beasts, I’m certain I’d be unable to call them anything at all, being struck dumb with awe and wonder!

If you, too, like mythical beasts – one of these creatures lurks in the pages of Running Wild Anthology of Stories V. 3! I won’t tell you which one, but the title gives a clue. Why not go explore? You’ll find several supernatural creatures hiding among those excellent stories.

Cover of Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3
Our New Anthology

Check back in a couple of weeks for another interview with one of my anthology colleagues!

 

*I encountered this term here: https://mythicalmagicalbeastsandbeings.com/alicorn.html (2020-02-17). The other terms showed up several places, including Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winged_unicorn (2020-02-17).

** Lexico, the online dictionary authored by Oxford University Press, agrees with the usage if not entirely with the derivation.  https://www.lexico.com/definition/alicorn (2020-02.17)

***This post is about supernatural creatures, so we’ll leave aside the area of the brain, which got its name from the beast, anyway.

7 thoughts on “Of Horses, Horns, Wings, and Tails

Add yours

  1. Fun story! I also liked the pics. I thought the hippocampus had to do with the brain. Also, the word I typically associate with church is ekkleisia. I’m not familiar with kyriakon. See you tomorrow, D. V. Stan

    > > >

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    1. Thank you, Stan! I love being able to talk about Greek with you. Kyriakon was definitely in the fine print in the depths of the etymology. (I almost had to bring out the magnifier glass for the OED!)

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  2. Dear Gemma ~ such a creative and fanciful scholarly blog – who has more fun, the writer (!!!!), the readers, or both! Next time I need a word created, I will ask you!
    Hippocampus – I usually associate with my Brain … Maybe that is my Residual kindred Unicorn spot???

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    1. Thank you, Danila! I had great fun writing this — and proposing some invented words. 🙂
      You and Stan are in good company — Merriam-Webster online only mentions the brain re: hippocampus, too. (But my good old printed dictionary remembers the mythical beast.) Who knows how part of the brain was named for it?

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  3. Gemma, this was a super fun post – thanks so much for the deep dive in this horned and horsey pantheon! I shall reread and ponder… and write.

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