Thursday, October 20, 2011


Toxic \TOK-sik\ , adjective;
1. Of, pertaining to, affected with, or caused by a toxin or poison
2. Pertaining to or noting debt that will probably not be repaid
1. A toxic chemical or other substance

I am currently obsessed with the cable channel H2. It's an offshoot of the History Channel and I consistently fill the DVR with programs from it, whether my husband likes it or not...

Anyway, I watched a pretty cool program the other day about Hercules. As a word nerd I, of course, noticed when they mentioned an etymological link between a very common modern word (toxic) and the legend of Hercules.

The modern form of the word is first attested in the 1660's from French toxique, which evolved from Late Latin toxicus ("poisoned"). The earlier Latin form was toxicum ("poison"), which was borrowed from Greek toxikon ("poison for use on arrows"). Toxikon is the neuter of toxicos ("pertaining to arrows or archery"), which is also related to toxon ("bow"). Ultimately the word probably comes from a Scythain word that also entered Latin as taxus ("yew").

So what does this have to do with Hercules? Well, the short version of his story is that he was the illegitimate son of Jupiter and a mortal woman. Jupiter's wife, Juno, was pretty irked by this and held a grudge against everyone involved, including Hercules. At some point in his adult life she sent him into a blind frenzy, during which he killed his own wife and kids. When he came to his senses and realized what he'd done he went to the Oracle at Delphi in the hopes of making amends. She sent him off to a king who set him on a series of tasks called the Labors of Hercules. For each labor he had to kill, capture, or destroy something (except for the one task where he had to clean something - stables, to be exact.)

One of the creatures he had to kill was the Lernaean Hydra, which is a serpent/reptile/water beast with many heads, and if one of those heads were cut off, two more would grow in its place. This made it pretty hard to kill, but of course Hercules did it, and after it was dead he dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood. So his poison arrows became linked with toxon ("bow"), and the etymology continues from there, as outlined above.

Okay, this story is a bit shaky, I'll admit...but it's kind of cool, no?

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