basilisk
n. a mythical snake-like creature reputed to be so venomous its gaze was deadly
n. a type of lizard (genus Basiliscus)

“Ben,” I hear you saying. “Tell me you’re not doing an entry about a basilisk because you read about it in Harry Potter.”

Emoticon

Fear not, dear reader(s)! As it turns out, today’s entry was inspired by a far cooler creation than Harry Potter: XKCD!

What sparked my interest beyond the initial laughter was that the name was not simply “basilisk,” but a l33t version of basiliskos, which my friend informs me is the original Greek. It literally means “little king.” The root, βασιλεύς, or basileus, means “king,” and so, I’m led to believe, the terminating “iskos” is analogous to the Spanish “ito,” which modifies its attached noun to “little.”

In fact, the root basil- gives royal connotations to just about everything. The herb? From the Greek basilikon phyton, meaning “royal plant,” so called because “it is believed to have grown above the spot where St. Constantine and Helen discovered the Holy Cross”1. Some say it was also believed to have been an antidote to the basilisk’s venom (as well as delicious in a stew).

I think perhaps the most interesting is the muddy transfer of the root from Greek to Latin. The basilica, the “building of a court of justice” probably more heavily identified with the Roman Catholic Church than anything else, comes from the stoa basilike, or royal portal, of the official justice-giver in Athens.

Our modern usage of basilisk seems to have come not directly from the Greek, but filtered through the Latin basiliscus. While the Greek was easy enough to understand—the mythical basilisk was said to be the king of the serpents, especially due to the crest-like feature on its head. Interestingly enough, basiliscus in Latin had lost the royal connotations and referred more or less only to the horrible lizard.

As an interesting sidenote, I should bring up the etymology of “dragon,” which comes from the Latin draconem, which itself came from the Greek δράκων, or drakōn. The origins of the original Greek comes from a strong aorist2 stem of derkesthai, which means “to see” or “to see clearly.” Its connotations, however, appear to denote a “darting, sharp and deadly glance of a snake”3.

A deadly glance? Now where have we heard that before?

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basil[]
  2. ἀόριστος, or aóristos, is a verb tense of Classical Greek. See Wikipedia.[]
  3. c.f. Thauma Idesthai: The Phenomenology of Sight and Appearance in Archaic Greek, by Raymond Adolph Prier, pgs. 29-30.[]
§1978 · February 13, 2008 · Tags: , , , ·

4 Comments to “Wednesday’s Word: basilisk”

  1. Conor says:

    This was bizarrely informative. Thanks for it.

    Your hosted version of the xkcd strip lacks the tooltip that delivers the punchline! But you did link directly to it on xkcd.com, so no harm done, I suppose.

  2. Ben says:

    Bizarrely informative is my specialty. That’s the beauty beautiful thing about etymology.

  3. Conor says:

    The beauty thing indeed.

Leave a Reply