Etymology Corner- Panic

DON’T PANIC. And if you do, please do so! at the disco, because it’s time to the etymology corner!

Rachel’s mention of Manic Panic reminded me of the origin story of the latter word, which sent me down a whole etymological, theological rabbit-hole.

Pan was a Greek (specifically Arcadian) god resembling a satyr. He would go about playing the pan-flute which bears his name, being all jolly and whatnot, but if he was disturbed or just in a mood, Pan would inflict madness and confusion on everyone around, including wild animals! Panic is literally just being effected by Pan. Weird noises in the woods were attributed to the god so people figured he was chaos incarnate.

But where did Pan come from? Well, there are a few theories. Many of these polytheistic gods were absorbed from local pantheons while many come from the religion of the spreading empires and it’s a difficult and touchy subject.

A lot of scholars believe that Pan is direct descendant of the Proto-Indo-European god *Péh2usōn and please don’t ask me what the 2 means because I am not a PIE speaker. If this is the case, Pan is not only cognate and cousin with the Vedic deity Pushan, but ultimately derived from the root *pa, a verb for protecting and feeding. This fits with Pan’s status as a nature god and Pushan’s role as a psychopomp and travel god.

The *pa root feeds into all sorts of words, pun intended, because it’s the root of food as well! Grimm’s Law (which will someday get it’s own etymology corner I’m sure) means that /p/ sounds become /f/s and /t/s become /d/s in Germanic languages, so the extended form *pat directly led to Germanic *fod and that’s so close to food already! Feeding and caring for something also gave way to the word foster while the idea of finding food for yourself gave us forage. Before you eat, you might whet your appetite with antipasto, literally meaning “before food”. Or if you wanted your livestock to feed, you could let them out to pasture. The person who did that was a pastor, which we now use pretty much exclusively in the metaphorical, spiritual sense. Any troublesome person who heckled these shepherds was pestering them, although it should be noted that the word pest is most likely not related, though possibly influential in pronunciation.

This general meaning of food gave the Romans the common noun “panis” meaning bread. From this we get all sorts of words, from the pantry where you keep bread to the company who you break bread with.

Of course, *pa also means to protect. Persians would use a many antidotes with varying success to protect from poison which they called pad-zahr, literally “protect-poison”. This word traveled through Arabic to give us the bezoar, a chunk of gross stomach gloop from goats and similar animals that was used as one such antidote. Harry Potter nerds will recognize bezoars as actually working, although I wouldn’t want to eat one if it wasn’t a life-or-death situation. Fur, the protective coat around most mammals, is also derived from this meaning of the root.

So that’s it for Pan since this is getting long even for my usual etymology corners. I barely got to talk about the further influences of the god, which is a shame, since he’s actually one of the main influences on depictions of the Christian devil, speaking of Halloweeeeen! Until next time, folks!


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