Lexical Investigations: Labyrinth

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.

According to Greek mythology, the sea god Poseidon gave a bull to King Minos of Crete. Poseidon expected the King to sacrifice the bull and was furious when the King chose to keep the bull instead. As punishment, he made Minos’s wife fall in love with the bull, and the two had a child, half-man and half-bull, called the Minotaur. The Minotaur grew up to be quite the man-eater (literally), and so King Minos had an impenetrable maze built called the labyrinth to contain the beast. The word labyrinth originally came from an unknown, pre-Greek language, but was later absorbed by Greek and Latin. It has long been used to refer to the structure allegedly located in Crete as well as other physical mazes. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, it was used figuratively as well, as when Shakespeare wrote in Troilus and Cressida in 1609, “How now, Thersites? What lost in the Labyrinth of thy furie?”

Popular References:Labyrinth, Movie, David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, 1986. A teenage girl must travel through the Goblin King’s maze to rescue her baby brother.House of Leaves,  Mark Danielewski, 2000. The story of a labyrinthine and supernatural house, told with an unconventional structure that mirrors the twists and turns and blind alleys of the house itself. The story of Minotaur is woven throughout.Myths & Legends: Stories Gods Heroes Monsters, by Philip Wilkinson, 2009.

Relevant Quotations:

“Now if he does not look to himself, they will put him in a labyrinth from which he will hardly escape.”

—Henry VIII, Letters and papers, foreign and domestic, of the reign of Henry VIII (1537)

‘And when thou hast on foot the purblind hare,

Mark the poor wretch, to overshoot his troubles

How he outruns the winds, and with what care

He cranks and crosses with a thousand doubles:

The many musits through the which he goes

Are like a labyrinth to amaze his foes.

—William Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, lines 679-684 (1593)

“But that we must seek a way through the labyrinth to whatever destiny awaits us is inescapable.”

—Richard W. Wilson, Labyrinth: an Essay on the Political Philosophy of Change (1988)

Read our previous post in our on-going series Lexical Investigations about the head-covering hat balaclava.

Previous Lexical Investigations: Balaclava Next Lexical Investigations: Awkward