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Unicorn: Where the word comes from

Updated on January 29, 2016

Where do Unicorns come from?

Adored by children everywhere... Unicorns are one of our most loved mystical, mythical creatures.
Adored by children everywhere... Unicorns are one of our most loved mystical, mythical creatures.

Theory about unicorn

Today you'll find out about the history of the word 'unicorn' and where many people propose it comes from. This is a genuine theory as told by a university professor in the UK (and by many other people, too) that highlights language and its propensity for change.

A white, horse-like creature with a single, spiralled horn and hour cloven hooves.
A white, horse-like creature with a single, spiralled horn and hour cloven hooves.

A Product of Reanalysis

According to some, unicorn is a product of reanalysis. 'What is reanalysis?' I hear you say. Reanalysis is a linguistic process by which one word turns in to another due to misunderstanding, mishearing, or mistranslation. It can be likened to a game of Chinese Whispers to some extent.

I have recently been convinced that reanalysis is how the word unicorn came about in the English language. Sat in a crowded university theatre, I listened to a professor explain how unicorn really came to be (according to him)...

The word unicorn has its roots in French grammar and can be understood as a result of simple reanalysis. Originally in French, the noun 'licorne' was a word that referred to a mythical, white, one-horned, horse-like creature - what we know today as the unicorn.

Step 1: Licorne > icorne

Licorne was - and still is - the French word for unicorn. Used in writing and in speech when telling myths to children, lichen referred to the mythical horse-like creature. It's from this, that the reanalysis begins.

English speakers mix with French speakers through trade, politics, government and other areas and activities and the languages are used by each respective native. It's here that the opportunity for reanalysis arises. The word 'licorne' is not a common one - it's not a French word than an Englishman would be required to know in order to conduct business with a Frenchman. Therefore, on hearing 'licorne' as English native may apply their knowledge of the French grammar system, specifically the different forms of 'the' - 'le' (masculine singular), 'la' (feminine singular) and 'les' (plural). The Englishman would likely need to know, in order to effectively conduct business with a Frenchman, that the French singular article, regardless of gender, is shortened preceding a vowel; in 'l'anniversaire', for example.

On hearing 'la licorne' it is quite possible than a native English speaker would mistakenly translate this to 'the the unicorn', assuming the speaker had conducted a false start - saying 'la' and then correcting themselves by shortening. In doing so, the Englishman then translates 'lichen' to be 'l'icorne'. It is here that the French word for unicorn, 'licorne', is mistaken to be 'icorne'.

Source

Icorne to Unicorne to Unicorn

Step 2: Icorne > unicorne

So, now we have an Englishman who thinks the French for unicorn is in fact 'icorne'. One day, for whatever reason, he begins to speak to a Frenchman about unicorns in general. There's no need to use a definite artice - he doesn't need to say 'l'icorne', he needs the French equivalent of 'a unicorn'. This, he believes, is 'une icorne' (you'll know from reading this Hub, that it's supposed to be 'une licorne'. It's clear by now that reanalysis has taken place. For the Englishman, the French word for this white, mythical creature is known to be 'icorne', and this is now ingrained in him.

Step 3: Une icorne > unicorn

Reanalysis has now occurred. The Englishman who tries his best to talk about unicorns to his French acquaintance has unfortunately completley miss the target. The Englishman tells his English speaking friends about this white mythical horse-like creature and says 'une icorne'. His friends, English speakers, have no understanding of French grammar and assume 'une icorne' is all one whole word. This word comes to be know, on paper, as 'unicorn'.

Source

Farfetched?

It may seem a little farfetched to you, but it does make sense overall. To summarise, here are the steps taken to get from licorne to unicorn.

  1. Licorne (noun for mythical horse-like creature with one horn)
  2. La licorne (refers to 'the one horned mythical creature that looks like a horse')
  3. L'icorne (La licorne is mistaken for a false start and a non-French native reanalyses to l'icorne, thinking he has recognised the false start
  4. Icorne (if the Englishman thinks l'icorne means the unicorn, then icorne means just 'unicorn' - but wait, you always need an article to accompany a noun in French)
  5. Une icorne (indefinite article + unicorn, basically means 'unicorn')
  6. Unicorn (English people begin using this word to mean the white, one-horned, horse-like creature we recognise today)

So as you can see, there are only 6 key steps to the change from Licorne to Unicorn. This will have taken years - decades even - to happen. This theory is actually one that is taught at a number of universities in the UK, as part of sociolinguists modules. it demonstrates the effects of language contact and contextualises language change in a way that captures the minds and imaginations of students.

like it or loathe it, this theory is more than probable, given it is supported by university researchers and lecturers. What do you think?

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