How Our Fears Have Changed Our Language

25 Nov 2020


If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books, then you know all about “he who shall not be named.”

However, it may surprise you to hear that the practice of not speaking the names of the things we fear—and instead calling them by something else—is actually something that’s been done since the beginning of time.

In fact, according to this great article from, many of the names for things in our everyday vocabulary are actually derived from the alternative names that scary things were given long ago.

Take the word “bear” for example. “Bear,” as we call it in English, comes from a Germanic word that literally means “the brown one.” It seems that the original name of the bear, h₂ŕ̥tḱos, was too scary for people to say, because of the threat that bears imposed on the northern areas where Proto-Indo-European was spoken. So, in an attempt to take power back from the scary h₂ŕ̥tḱos, people started calling them by descriptive words instead.

The fear of physical threats is not the only thing that has changed language over time, though. Human beings also have a fear of words that are deemed as “taboo” or “bad.” And, as a result, many alternative words have been invented using similar sounds.

If you want to see an example of this practice, just visit your local playground. You’re sure to hear plenty of “frick,” “gosh darnit,” and “son of a biscuit” from parents, trying to keep their language clean in front of their kids.

While it has become a common practice, changing our language because of our fears may actually be counter intuitive. After all, as the great Albus Dumbledore once advised, “always use the proper name for things” because “fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

Watercooler Writer 
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