Have you ever wondered to yourself, why are unicorns called unicorns? We have. We’ve always wondered how these amazing little creatures got their name (yeah, yeah, we can guess…. probably because they have one horn on their head). But even if that is the case, why aren’t they called unihorns? We thought it would be interesting to really dive in and take a better look, and figure it out. We will answer the question, why are unicorns called unicorns?
Whenever you think of a unicorn, you probably get some fantasy type picture of a beautiful creature in the arms of some maiden somewhere. Like this:
Yeah- we think of the same thing. However, if you believe anything that Marco Polo has to say (he was a 13th century Italian explorer), that’s not what they look like at all. In fact, after all of his travels he decided to write a book called The Travels of Marco Polo. In it he details all of his travels and what he saw. After he spotted a unicorn, this is what he wrote about it:
“Their hair is like that of a buffalo, and their feet like those of an elephant. In the middle of the forehead they have a very large black horn…. Their head is like that of a wild boar, and is always carried bent to the ground. They delight in living in mire and in mud. It is a hideous beast to look at, and in no way like what we think and say in our countries, namely a beast that lets itself be taken in the lap of a virgin. Indeed, I assure you that it is quite the opposite of what we say it is.”
Well, that’s certainly a different take on these magical creatures. Makes us wonder, what in the world did Marco Polo see? Could it have been our beloved unicorn? Most everyone during his time also gave the standard description of the animal that we think of when we hear the word unicorn.
Another description came from Ctesias, who was a Greek historian and physician. Ctesias was the very first person to write about unicorns and detailed his encounter with a unicorn in his book Indica that was written all the way back in 400 BCE.
“There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses and even larger. Their bodies are white, their heads are dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn in the middle of the forehead that is one cubit [about a foot and a half] in length; the base of this horn is pure white … the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson, and the middle portion is black. … Other asses, tame or wild … do not have an ankle-bone… but these do have an ankle-bone … the most beautiful that I have ever seen…. This animal is exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it…”
Since his writings, most people have decided that he was actually talking about the Indian Rhinoceros. He had never seen a rhinoceros and had never been to India, so it makes sense that he may have been slightly confused. Which is still quite a funny comparison, because the two creatures look nothing alike except for maybe the single horn on the head part. If we take our logic from here then we can figure out partially where the word unicorn comes from. It’s Latin and it means one horn= uni-one and cornu-horn. Anciently we believe that scholars were trying to come up with a Greek version of the word. They basically took the strange rhinoceros descriptions and formed the word monokeros, which is the Greek word for one horn. Again, we should note that some ancient writers had already described the Indian rhinoceros as monokeros. Then the Bible came along and in it’s Latin version changed the word to unicornus, which then became the English equivalent of unicorn.
Basically the medieval writers all used every worldview as a singular allegory to Christian beliefs. Everything in their world was tied to Christian history and doctrine, and as such they took the word and make a unicorn out of it and created the creature to stand as a symbol of Christ. Personally, we don’t mind it. Who cares where the creature came from. The most important point is that it came, and we get to swoon of them on a daily basis. We have the amazing unicorn, which continues to delight our senses and makes us giddy.
We still haven’t answered why it’s unicorn instead of unihorn. We’ve already talked about it’s history and dating back to the Greeks who used
the word monokeros. Back in the days of Old English, the h in a word sounded entirely different to the way the h sounds in our words today. It sounded more like a Scottish ch, like in the word loch. People generally would make the sound by scraping their tongue on the back part of their mouth (I know, I didn’t know all this before now either). It basically sounded a lot more like the word corn and so that’s how we landed on corn instead of horn.
Again, I don’t really care where the unicorn got its name. I LOVE these things! Apparently the rest of the world loves them too. There are historical writings not only from India, Greece and the Western world, but apparently there are even ancient writings from China that describe the unicorn it all its glory. Their horns also have power to neutralize poison, heal wounds and cure sickness. That’s not all. The unicorn is also the unofficial animal of Scotland. The unicorn also symbolizes feminine power, innocence and purity. There are just so many reasons we love the unicorn and can’t get enough of them. Hopefully this helps clear up the question, why are unicorns called unicorns?