Ancient name for "bear"

Over 4000 years ago, the ancestors of most modern European and many other languages formed one group of dialects. 

Cave bear

Their word for "bear" was something like artko (a linguistic rendition: h2ŕ̥tḱos). It developed into, e.g., the Latin ursus, Spanish oso, Welsh arth, Greek άρκτος.

Bears in Slovakia

Slovakia's bears are biologically closer to the grizzly than to the American black bear. A particularly detailed survey established their number at 1,240 in 2015.

Bear in Slovakia

Bears are protected in Slovakia, many scavenge in rarely bear-proofed garbage cans, so females can rear three to four cubs instead of the traditional one or two, and some experts suggest that as a result, the country has more than twice as many bears as their habitat should naturally support.

Borrowed words for "bear"

Contrary to what casual discussions sometimes maintain, artko, the ancient word for "bear," was also retained in some Celtic languages (arth in Welsh, arzh in Old Breton), or replaced with a borrowing from Germanic (bearach in Irish, bearch in Scottish Gaelic). The other names occasionally quoted for Welsh and Irish are limited merely to recent hunting jargon that uses descriptive terms for other animals too. The jargon did not push out the ancient word from Welsh and Irish (the way tabooing did in Slavic, Germanic, and Baltic).

After the Ugric tribes (the ancestors of today's Hungarians, whose speech was unrelated to most European languages) arrived in Central Europe from Asian and East European prairies around 900 CE, they borrowed the word medveď and also maco. The standard Hungarian word for "bear" has since changed to medve.

Audio on bears in Slovakia (4' 33"):

By Laura Postma (Slovak-Swiss-Dutch) in English for Deutsche Welle

The word for "bear"

Q: Does the word medveď have something to do with honey?

Not today, but it used to mean "a honey eater." That old meaning is not obvious any more, nor is the old meaning of the English word bear – "brown" (i.e., "dark").

New cover-up name

The Old Slavic people (the linguistic ancestors of today's speakers of, e.g., Slovak, Polish, Croatian), Old Germanic people (the linguistic ancestors of today's speakers of, e.g., English, German, Norwegian), and Old Baltic people (the linguistic ancestors of today's speakers of Latvian and Lithuanian), who lived next to each other and interacted for many generations, came to believe that if you call the bear by his true name, he would hear and understand, and you would fail to catch him, or he would come to harm you. The bear was the only really dangerous animal in their woods. The original word artko was tabooed. Such beliefs about not calling prey and danger by their "true" names are not uncommon among hunters and people in general through the present.

Honey eater

The ancestors of the Slovaks and other Slavs replaced the then-tabooed word artko with the descriptive cover-up name medú jed, "of-honey eater." The [ú] later turned into [w] and then to [v], the phrase eventually changed to medveď. The Slovaks also sometimes call a bear maco [mahtso], which is a former alternative cover-up name that goes back to "the chubby, fleshy one."

The Old Germanic tribes replaced the tabooed artko with the descriptive "the brown one" (brown used to mean "dark" then), which gave the English bear (one linguist has suggested that the word may have come from "the fierce one" instead, another one that it could have come from "beehive"). The Old Baltic cover-up word for "a bear" (lācis in Latvian, lokys in Lithuanian) is generally thought to have come from "a licker," some suppose it could have been from "the furry one."


Forested bear habitat (dark green) in Slovakia and places where bears disperse outside of it (yellow bear icons) into other forests (light green).