2381: The True Name of the Bear

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The True Name of the Bear
Thank you to Gretchen McCulloch for fielding this question, and sorry that as a result the world's foremost internet linguist has been devoured by the brown one. She will be missed.
Title text: Thank you to Gretchen McCulloch for fielding this question, and sorry that as a result the world's foremost internet linguist has been devoured by the brown one. She will be missed.


The Canadian Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch tweeted about the theory that the word for bear became taboo in some branches of Indo-European languages - notably the Germanic one - and it was replaced by euphemisms. In the Germanic branch, the euphemism may have been "the brown one," and thus the modern word "bear" (derived from Germanic "beran") would more literally translate into the color "brown" rather than the animal.

The Indo-European word for bear is *h₂ŕ̥tḱos (given in the comic as the root *rkto-, a later form of the root) which has been inferred from modern languages that still use a word derived from it. In the comic, McCulloch applies sound shifting laws to it to guess how it would have evolved in English had it not been superseded, but saying it seems to actually summon a bear.

(The asterisk is used by linguists to mark a word that doesn't currently exist in a spoken language - in this case, because it's a reconstructed ancestor to modern words in a number of languages.)

Interestingly enough, the hypothesized word “arth” is the same as the Welsh and Cornish for the word “bear.” Welsh belongs to the Celtic language family, which is one of the Indo-European branches that still uses a word derived from *h₂ŕ̥tḱos, as do the Italic (Romance), Greek and Indo-Aryan (Sanskrit) branches, while Germanic, Slavic and Baltic branches abandoned it for different euphemisms. Another Indo-European language where the word for bear is very close to this extrapolation is Armenian, where it's written արջ and pronounced “artch”. The comic does not explain why speakers of Welsh, Cornish, Italic, Greek, Indo-Aryan, and Armenian languages do not summon a bear every time they refer to one.[citation needed]

Linguists on Tumblr have observed[1] that "arth" is not actually how the Indo-European root for 'bear' would have emerged in English; "orx" or "orse" is a more likely hypothesis.

Use of true names appears to be highly effective in the xkcd universe, rather like a fairy tale, and it is also a common trope elsewhere. Some say a true name contains clear meaning of who someone or something really is. Gretchen McCulloch has been mentionned in 2250: OK/okay/ok. In later comics, Gretchen is used again, causing annoyance in 2421: Tower of Babel. Since these stories occur during biblical times or in extra-dimensional realities, it is not Gretchen, but obviously this is how linguists look in xkcd from now on.


[Megan walks in from the left, looking down at her phone. Cueball and Ponytail are standing next to each other.]
Megan: Wow - according to the internet, we don't know the true name of the bear.
Cueball: What?
[Gretchen McCulloch, drawn with short, curly hair, comes on-panel from the right.]
Megan: Apparently there was a superstition that saying its name would summon it. "Bear" and "bruin" mean "the brown one." Its actual name has been lost.
Cueball: Wow.
Ponytail: Gretchen, is this for real?
[Zoom-in on Gretchen.]
Gretchen: Well, sort of
Gretchen: The Proto-Indo-European root was *rkto-
Gretchen: It was lost in the Germanic languages like English, but survived elsewhere, e.g. Greek "arktos" and Latin "ursus"
[Back to the second panel, with Megan holding her phone down, Ponytail with her hands in the air, and Gretchen with her hand on her chin.]
Megan: So could we figure out what the word would have been in English?
Gretchen: Hmm. I mean, we'll never know, but given Germanic sound shifts, a reasonable guess might be "arth"?
Ponytail: No!!
[The panel zooms in again to Gretchen.]
Ponytail (off-panel): Stop! AAAAA!
Gretchen: What??
Ponytail (off-panel): Don't say it!
[Ponytail is holding her palms out. Megan is no longer in the panel.]
Ponytail: What have you done?
Off-panel noise: ROAR
Gretchen: Oh
Gretchen: Oh no

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This one is ridiculously early. 05:22, 4 November 2020 (UTC)

Let’s try this again, hopefully won’t get stepped on this time... I know I’ve seen Gretchen on various YouTube channels but is she really “the world's foremost internet linguist” as Randal claims? 05:29, 4 November 2020 (UTC)

Probably as a linguist studying internet culture, which she is indeed one of the most famous in that area. Most popular linguist on the internet? It's everyone's guess.
From Randall Munroe to Tom Scott... how much more proof do you need? Or is it a conspiracy theory waiting to happen? 16:34, 4 November 2020 (UTC)

Well, after being mentioned by Randall she totally might become the most known one.

"Arth" is Welsh for bear.

Sounds rather close to the French "ours" (which derives from Latin and whose pronunciation has virtually nothing in common with the English word of the same spelling).-- 15:24, 6 November 2020 (UTC)

Hence King Arthur 20:22, 6 November 2020 (UTC)

Hmm... I find Ponytail's behaviour strange. At first she asks for explanation/verification of Megan's claim and when she recieves it she yells "NO!" as if she already knew it would be true... Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 09:14, 4 November 2020 (UTC)

She gets confirmation that the name is lost in panel 3 (and assumes it also confirms the summoning part). So she indeed knew by panel 10:51, 4 November 2020 (UTC)
Why isn't the bear's name summoning it after its name being said out loud in panel 3, though? Or is the name only "true" in English (in which the name didn't exist until Gretchen reconstructed it)? Doesn't make sense. /edit: I know we are talking about myths and superstition here and thus it might be all somewhat hazy but this comic is imho not self-consistent. I'm not used to inconsistent comics on XKCD (unless it's done on purpose for humorous effect which in this case seems not to be true). Thus my irritation. Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 11:13, 4 November 2020 (UTC)
They are clearly in England (or the Anglosphere in general, though English isn't the official language in the US, merely customary) and by the Rules Of Summoning an English/etc 'bear' must only respond to the locality-sanctioned word (said with intent, not a coincidentally homophonic collection of syllables, not saying the exact same word but in the sense of being actually quoting a different language that uses the same word).
I theorise that the Welsh are saying their bear-name in slightly the wrong accent for being useful to summon a Welsh bear (maybe it should be more "Ardd"?) due to excessive Anglicisation. Or the Celtic way of not-saying-the-true-Celtic-word is to habitually say the Anglic one, which thus does not count. Or the Welsh bears are just confused by the current trend for dual-language signage and expect/require both. (Welsh then English in one half of the country, English followed by Welsh in the other part of the nation.) 12:55, 4 November 2020 (UTC)
If we're worried about consistency here, how is it that all the Romance language speakers (e.g. Orso for Italians, Oso for Spaniards, etc) get away without being constantly mauled? Perhaps it's only the *true* name of the bear, -rkto, that summons the animal. I suppose that would give an explanation of why we don't see any Indo-European speakers around nowadays... Gbisaga (talk) 13:37, 4 November 2020 (UTC)
  • NOTE* I've added an explanation that attempts to summarize this consistency discussion. But somebody reverted it. Why? It doesn't seem out of line, compared to a lot of what I read on explainxkcd. Gbisaga (talk) 14:29, 4 November 2020 (UTC)
It need not be so complicated. Perhaps there is only 1 ur-bear (ha ha) that can teleport when it hears the magic word. If the magic word is said many times every day in Wales, that ur-bear would be exhausted by teleportation and only rarely does saying the name cause it to do so. Whereas in English, the first time in years it has been summoned is in this comic, so of course it comes. JohnHawkinson (talk) 19:54, 4 November 2020 (UTC)
Or simply the summoning only works when the true name is said in the currently spoken language (English), not as a foreign word. And consistency on how it works or doesn't work in other languages is really really overthinking, as this comics is not about other languages and says nothing on summoning technicalities. 00:53, 6 November 2020 (UTC)
How does the bear know which language is spoken, though... Besides, I'm not sure if this is overthinking if it's basically the first thought I had regarding this comic. Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 12:34, 6 November 2020 (UTC)

Fascinating! In Russian, the word for bear is also euphemistic, pronounced as medved, which roughly means "knowledgeable about honey". But until today, I thought that something like "ber" is in fact its true name. Turns out it's not even that. 14:02, 4 November 2020 (UTC)

Actually, medved is 'honey-eater', see these two links (in Russian) https://pikabu.ru/story/kto_krayniy_za_medvedem_fenomen_tabu_v_lingvistike_5812897 and https://pikabu.ru/story/kak_rabotaet_istoricheskaya_lingvistika2_v_berloge_yetimologa_5817400 16:14, 4 November 2020 (UTC)
Accurate! aoijgpisbHtejsykl7ekderhtsjk6r64os4kys\\\[]jsrtjgdrghtvgwrhtejyku5dli6;78t7l6rk5j4h|||||#Rty-----WWWWWWfflfllfllfllfeogk0q9wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww4-cv;c;;c;c[;]z\]d;v[\]????????OH GOD IT'S CRASIHNG MY PC����������������������������������������������� (talk) 06:40, 6 November 2020 (UTC)
Being Russian, I van tell that "med" part means honey, but "ved" part is arhaic word for "know" (compare to "vedma" - witch - "woman, who knows things"). And medved is a next generation of euphemism - in old slavic bear's name was "ber" (Russian "berloga" - bear's lair) and it is now considered "true name".
Roughly, the 'honey-eater' etymology has the 'v' originating from "medu" being an u-stem and probably "ed" 'eating' lacking the prothetic 'j'. This wouldn't be possible in newer words and is counter-intuitive to modern speakers of most/all Slavic languages, it should shows how old is the word formation. Not sure about the detailed arguments for this etymology, but wiktionary has some good links. Even as a folk-etymology 'knowledgeable about honey' shows a more spiritual than fearful relation to bears, but the line can be thin. "berloga" and cognates on the other hand seem to be pretty unclear.
Interestingly enough, while all slavic languages have a variation of "medved" as the name for bears, ukrainian is the only one that turns the words around to turn it into "vedmidʹ" (it could also be regular phonetic mutation, toough); Baltic languages seem to use unrelated words (between them and to the rest of Indo-Euripean languages), while on the Indo-Aryan side of things, Persian languages go the "urs" route (although with a strange pronunciation), while Indian languages seemingly go down the bear route, with the word in all of them coming from Sanskrit bhallūkaḥ. I still don't know why Scottish Gaelic uses "mathan", although it meay or may not be related to the "med" in medved.--
I've just been down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole, because of this information, to try to work out why I don't remember it being reported that Medvedev had resigned and replaced by Mishustin. (Or replaced with him, wherever he emerged from, by Putin, to be strictly accurate.). Probably we were more concerned about the Constitutional changes, then 'other things' hit the headlines. Not comic-related, but thank you for enlightening me on both linguistic and (as a side-effect) political subjects. 16:39, 4 November 2020 (UTC)
What were the linguistic speculations that the header mentioned? Even if there's no source, they shouldn't be removed.

I thought the reconstruction was *rtkos, not *rktos? Wikipedia agrees: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Indo-European/h₂ŕ̥tḱos 16:14, 4 November 2020 (UTC)

You’re absolutely correct. Not only is the thorn cluster backwards according to the most commonly accepted reconstruction, it also has the wrong velar (should be *k̑, not *k), AND the laryngeal is missing. The syllabicity marker on the *r is also missing, though the nature of the right-to-left syllabification rule means that the *r would at least automatically be syllabified anyway. This was the main thing that really bothered me about this comic, along with the fact that the expected English form would absolutely not be **arth, but *urth (or perhaps just *ur (OE *urh-).
So yes, there’s an awful lot wrong with the actual linguistics in this one. Which is very disappointing. :-( 09:40, 6 November 2020 (UTC)
I'm surprised you wrote all that while somehow completely forgetting that these are reconstructions and thus not definitive. Case in point: Etymology online gives both *rtko https://www.etymonline.com/word/bear and *rkto- https://www.etymonline.com/word/arctic (apparently it survives in the word 'arctic'. Who knew?) . 16:48, 29 May 2024 (UTC)

I bet a dollar that the long-lost English word for "bear" was "Voldemort". 01:03, 5 November 2020 (UTC)

Oh-oh. You said it. This is why you need to create an account - you don't want people randomly summoning you by your true name "Mr/Ms" !! SteveBaker (talk) 17:48, 5 November 2020 (UTC) (Not my real name which is...oh wait...nearly got me there!)

In Finnish bear is karhu, which is also an euphemistic word meaning "the rough one". There are many other words for bear as well, such as kontio (one that walks slowly), nalle ("bear" in Swedish), mesikämmen (the nectar palm), metsän kuningas (the king of the forest), kouko/kouvo (some kind of ghost?), otava (this one would take way too long to explain) and finally oksi/ohto/otso, which likely is the true name. 11:46, 5 November 2020 (UTC)

A safe name to avoid the name of something dangerous is known as noa-name (further reference). You find it also for the wolf, devil, god, leprechauns etc. 20:51, 5 November 2020 (UTC)

The etymological joke might be on the comic writer - hrtkos might be itself a euphemism, cognate with a word in Sanskrit that meant "destroyer" - possibly "hive destroyer." "there is also a suggestion that the original PIE word for bear, *rkso- (or its variants) is itself descriptive, meaning "destroyer (perhaps of beehives)", because a cognate word in Sanskrit is "rakshas", meaning "harm, injury"" Who really knows? Same source identifies the name in Lithuanian as a different euphemism - "the shaggy one." And wonders about a German, a Slav, and a Balt arguing about the best circumlocution while being careful not to slip up and make themselves an xkcd punchline. Anyway, it's a fun read: [2] Jd2718 (talk) 22:52, 5 November 2020 (UTC)

I wonder if the fact that the brown bear (aka grizzly) has been disappearing from most of North-America as the Germanic languages expanded there, could be cited as (weak) evidence that the euphemism actually prevents bears from appearing.--Pere prlpz (talk) 13:12, 6 November 2020 (UTC)

This has mainly to do with what's called taboo in linguistics and often doesn't only mean the use of an euphemism for a word, but also the complete disappearance of any reletad worlds, or in some cases even worlds that sound vaguely similar. A commonly reported modern example is the presence of at least ten different terms to refer to the restroom in english, where there isn't really (as far as I know) a fear of summoning anything. On the other hand magical thinking was probably more common and bears where a real treath. The commonly given explanation for this phenomenon is inevitably simplicistic, and arguably less funny as it could be a comparable explanation about toilets. I find the slavic euphemism more funny, but germanic languages are considered the kentum languages most close to satem ones and the significance of this distinction is somewhat disputed, so this may actually have a great importance (I really hope some day the same could be said about water closets).

It's worth mentioning that this is the same joke as the "Wake up sheeple!" one.

In David Anthony - The Horse The Wheel and Language (2007) page 24 it's mentioned that speakers of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language probably avoided speaking the name of the bear for ritual reasons

Some links marked with the padlock symbol have a hovertext saying, "Warning: TV Tropes. See comic 609." I've seen this in other pages here. It's not clear to me what our reaction is supposed to be to these. Is it telling us that the link is unsafe to click on? (If that were meant, why not just remove the link?) Or is it telling us to click on the link to see what the warning actually is? Koro Neil (talk) 03:51, 22 June 2021 (UTC)

It is meant to warn that you might get stuck in a wiki walk and be distracted, if I remember correctly. 17:39, 25 November 2021 (UTC)