The following letter to the TLS (Jan. 1, 2021) contains several curious words:


Apropos Shahidha Bari’s review of Vaughn Scribner’s Merpeople (December 11), and its timely reminder that merpeople “are still with us, potent figures of human difference”: not many non-merpeople perhaps know that in what’s been hailed (by David Attenborough) as “the first natural history encyclopaedia”, besides mermen and mermaids, there’s a splendid image of a mer-monk, large as life and twice as unnatural. The source is Jacob Meydenbach’s Hortus Sanitatis, an incunable of 1491 from Gutenberg’s Mainz, a fine copy of which resides in Cambridge’s University Library.

Paul Cartledge
Clare College, Cambridge

Merpeople is a pretty obvious plural, but you still don’t see it very often; the OED (entry updated September 2001) has these citations:

1824 C. Lamb Let. 10 Aug. (1935) II. 434 A baker, who has the finest collection of marine monsters in ten sea counties,—sea dragons, ploypi, mer-people, most fantastic.
1882 Spectator 16 Dec. 1618 The idea of the ‘child of earth..’ carried away to consort with Mer-people is as old as Hylas.
1964 J. P. Clark Three Plays 46 Daughter of Umaloku, the delight of God and pride of unguents, Who the merpeople desire, I come Ahead of the snail and tortoise.
2007 Weekly World News 6 Aug. 11/1 While studying exotic marine life in the lowest depths of the Indian Ocean, marine biologist Vincent Harbor encountered a merpeople colony unlike any ever seen.

I am happier than I can say that the last citation is from the Weekly World News, the natural home of merpeople-related news. The word incunable is not particularly rare, though I myself usually use incunabulum. But the prize find here is mer-monk (I would prefer mermonk, since the other mer-words are not hyphenated); it’s not in the OED, and I thought perhaps it might be a hapax, but Google Books finds it in The English Illustrated Magazine, No. 5 (March 1898), p. 271:

The sea-monk or mer-monk of our Illustration may be regarded by comparison as a common object of the seashore, “for the hinferior horder of clergy,” in the nature of things, must be more numerous than their ecclesiastical superiors of episcopal rank.

And I presume that this refers to the very mer-monk, “large as life and twice as unnatural,” mentioned in the letter. How many can there be?


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    The google books corpus reveals that “merpersons” is also Out There. Singular “merperson” with “merpeople” as the plural seems more common, at least on the first page or so of hits, but this isn’t a One Right Way to Do It situation.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    And specifically related to mer-monk here’s a tantalizing “snippet view” excerpt from a text that’s Out There: “MERPERSONS In the year 1531 a bishop – fish , accompanied by his retinue of monk – fish , was presented at the court of the king of Poland . Presumably the Silesian air was too dry for the bishop and his aqueous clerics , for he later …”

  3. this isn’t a One Right Way to Do It situation.

    Maybe not, but I personally find “merpersons” obnoxious.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    Perhaps “Persons of Merness” would be more polite? Wiktionary reports that bare “mer” is also attested as a plural, with this example (which I’m not gonna bother to add “sic” to in multiple places):

    2013, Missy Fleming, Into the Deep, page 65:
    There are mermaids and mermen everywhere. They swim above us and linger in nooks and arched doorways. It’s impossible not to stare. The mer are as diverse as humans—all ages, size, shape, and color.

  5. A full, beautifully digitised copy of the incunable in question can be found in the University of Cambridge Digital Library here. The mer-monk himself appears on page 672, in the frontispiece of the Book De Piſcibus.

  6. Very nice! And it turns out to be a different mer-monk, a good reminder to me about assumptions.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    He might be the same mer-monk after a makeover.

  8. A species of sea-monk is also sighted off the coast of Japan… the dread umibōzu.

  9. You don’t seem to have batted an eye at “pride of unguents.” What is an unguent in this case? Someone who is doing a bit of anointing? Or is this some sort of “person, pride of (things)” construction that is foreign to me?

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    I wonder what the deal is with the second h in “Shahidha”?

    (I mean, it’s her name, and she can spell it how she likes*. I’m just curious. And maybe it’s not Arabic at all.)

    * My own surname is a spelling mistake from the eighteenth century, further compounded by my great-grandfather, who was the first to spell it that way … all Eddyshaws are second cousins of mine or closer (or married to such. Or have just adopted the cachet of a famous name …)

  11. You don’t seem to have batted an eye at “pride of unguents.” What is an unguent in this case? Someone who is doing a bit of anointing?

    Clark’s Three Plays is available on loan from the Internet Archive, if you’re truly curious. Also, there’s a performance of Song of A Goat (the play in question) on YouTube (16 minutes — I have no idea if it’s the whole thing), and there’s a (fairly confusing) summary here.

  12. I learned “merperson” when we were discussing fish.มัจฉา

    มัจฉา • (mát-chǎa)
    From Pali maccha (“fish”). [Inherited from Sanskrit मत्स्य (mátsya), from Proto-Indo-Aryan *mátsyas, from Proto-Indo-Iranian *mátsyas. → Khmer: មច្ឆា (macchaa) → Thai: มัจฉา (mát-chǎa) ]

    1. fish.
    2. (elegant, figuratively) merperson.

  13. I was wondering what was going on with Lamb’s “ploypi” (typo?) and “hinferior horder” (pun I’m not getting? dialectical feature? Mermannic laryngeal?).

    When Magic: the Gathering was released, they used “merfolk” as one of the major creature types. Since some abilities were tied to that particular name, they were more or less obligated to stick with that name for future releases.

  14. You don’t seem to have batted an eye at “pride of unguents.”

    Also, since it turns out the author is Nigerian, we can’t expect standard usage. In fact, it’s notable that the OED includes it as a regular old citation — they no longer confine their attention to boring old Blighty!

    And I learn that J. P. Clark, more fully John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, died in 2020; that article contains a brief description of Song of a Goat.

  15. I was wondering what was going on with Lamb’s “ploypi” (typo?) and “hinferior horder” (pun I’m not getting? dialectical feature? Mermannic laryngeal?).

    Good catch on the first; this online edition has “polypi.” As for “hinferior horder,” it’s just Stage Cockney for “inferior order.”

  16. I thought X-folk is the fantasy standard….

    fair folk, fairy folk, good folk, little folk, plain folk, Norfolk….

    And gentlefolk (~gentleman)

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    I think Pride of Unguents was opening for R.E.M. at the Hartford Agora in ’85 but we got stuck in traffic and missed most of their set?

  18. David Eddyshaw says

    This page seems currently to represent the sole hit for “pride of unguents” on all the Intertubes. (DDG and Bing find it; the increasingly useless Google does not, at least, as of this moment.)

  19. I think Pride of Unguents was opening for R.E.M. at the Hartford Agora in ’85 but we got stuck in traffic and missed most of their set?

    They broke up long ago, of course, but you can still enjoy their cover band Viscous Pleasures.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    With their notorious lead singer Sid Viscous?

  21. The weird thing is that I may have been at that show. Some damn place a couple hours south of Boston, with a soccer teammate driving. I picked up a purple REM shirt that I had for a decade. But I think you’re confusing the opening act with the name of the tour, Life’s Rich Unguent.

    I’m not challenging pride of unguents. Non-standard usage is fine. But I’m still hoping someone who does understand it will give me a hint, since it looks like I’d need some sort of non-standard file reader to download the “encrypted daisy” version at Two non-standards is too much.

    Edited – Later I figured out how to open and search the play. There’s no useful context though. “Some sort of (person), pride of (things) usage” is as far as I’m going to get. I guess if you read “J.P. Clark, the pride of Lagos” with Lagos as the place of which Clark is the finest inhabitant, rather than the place whose population is proud of Clark, you can find your way to “pride of unguents” by a rather loose analogy, where Umaloku is the finest user of such substances.

    But I continue to wonder whether it’s a standard usage in Nigeria, or just a one-off.

  22. Mermen are properly merweres. The two r’s indicate the roughness of their scales.

  23. I tried to dissimilate /merwer/ to make it more palatable to my barbarian tongue and obtained Mourvèdre…
    P.S. all right, not dissimilation (meCw- > muCv-)

  24. Smithsonian Magazine article about a sea-monk in the Oresund c.1550 (which also has a Wikipedia article) and alludes to earlier medieval sea-monks. The sea-bishop is treated separately.

    wiktionary Category:English words prefixed with mer-

  25. January First-of-May says

    “Mer-monk” reminds me of the most ridiculous Svoya Igra (Russian version of Jeopardy) refereeing fail I’ve ever seen…

    The last pre-final question of the June 21, 2020 game was Monks for 300 (lowest possible value in the third round). Question (as translated by me): “These animals are now under danger of extinction, with only two dozen specimens left in the Black Sea”.

    The player’s answer: “sea monk” (морской монах). The correct answer: “monk seals” (тюлени-монахи).

    Somehow, the answer was accepted… not that it helped the player who got the 300 points (he was still too far behind first place to be able to win in the final round).

  26. @January First-of-May: That reminds me of an episode of Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! (a National Public Radio call-in news quiz program), in which one of the panelists, Paula Poundstone bungled a question by repeatedly referring to “sea elephants,” instead of “elephant seals.” The game was one where each of the three panelists read a news story to the contestant, but two of them were fictional, created by the panelists themselves; the contestant’s goal was to figure out which story was the real one. The mistake Poundstone had made led to some obvious awkwardness from the other people on the show.

  27. January First-of-May says

    by repeatedly referring to “sea elephants,” instead of “elephant seals”

    As it happens, the Russian term for “elephant seals” is in fact exactly “sea elephants” (морские слоны).

  28. Same in German (See-Elefant) and, if we can believe wikipedia, many other languages. As English WP has a redirect from “Sea elephant”, this is maybe also a colloquial / regional / outdated variant in English?

  29. Stu Clayton says

    The German WiPe on sea elephants says:

    # Der Name Mirounga leitet sich von „miouroung“ ab, der Bezeichnung für Südliche See-Elefanten in einer Sprache der australischen Aborigines. #

    The writer doesn’t trouble itself to say more about the language or language family. Prophylaxis against information overload, I guess. Following the linky-dinks, I read that there are “circa” 250 languages.

  30. Sea elephant is in all the dictionaries.

    I couldn’t have told you whether sea elephant or elephant seal was the more common name in English.

  31. Google Ngrams shows “sea elephant” way ahead prior to 1900, rough equality in usage for the time from 1900–1950, and “elephant sea” way more common since 1950. I tested this behavior by also comparing plurals, adding articles, etc., and the trend seems pretty robust. The pattern probably reflects a change from the traditional name to a more “scientific” one.

  32. ぞうあざらし【象海豹】 ローマ(zōazarashi)
    【動】 an elephant seal; a sea elephant; 〔キタゾウアザラシ〕 a northern elephant seal; Mirounga angustirostris; 〔ミナミゾウアザラシ〕 a southern elephant seal; Mirounga leonina.

    zō: elephant
    azarashi: true seal
    海豹 (ateji): ‘sea’ + ‘leopard’
    (can also be read as:
    かいひょう2【海豹】 ローマ(kaihyō)
    【動】 =あざらし.)

    ひょうあざらし【豹海豹】 ローマ(hyōazarashi)
    【動】 a leopard seal; Hydrurga leptonyx.
    (with the leopard character occurring twice)

  33. @DE
    My own surname is a spelling mistake from the eighteenth century, further compounded by my great-grandfather

    If you would, what were the earlier versions of your surname?

  34. PlasticPaddy says

    My money is on edgeshaw😊

  35. We began as a spelling mistake for Hithersay, believe it or not. Not everyone is capable of misspellings of this magnitude.

    That is indeed remarkable, and I had forgotten it. Now I want to know about Hithersay (“The meaning of this surname is not listed”).

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    It looks rather like one of those Norse placenames of the pattern “X’s Island”, but if so, I don’t know what the name X was. Maybe it had got mangled (which would make “Eddyshaw” a misspelling of a mangling. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma …)

    My father and/or younger son would be the people to know. Myself, I’ve never been much into genealogy. Who needs glorious ancestors when you are a glorious ancestor?

  37. The OED has corrected “ploypi” in the September 2022 update. Sending them corrections is a crapshoot: sometimes it pays off, sometimes nothing happens. For example, there’s still a problem in the bibliographic citation for that quote: the inline citation is correct, but the pop-up box displays “Sir Thomas N. Talfourd · Final memorials of Charles Lamb · 1848”, which is a different collection that doesn’t even contain this letter. It should be “E. V. Lucas ed. · The letters of Charles Lamb, to which are added those of his sister Mary Lamb · 1935”. (There may be some bug in their database: apparently all the citations from this 1935 collection show the Talfourd 1848 collection in the pop-up box. There are hundreds of them, so maybe it’s not an easy fix and they’re still working on it.)

  38. Lars Mathiesen says

    [F]rom Hathersage (Derbys[hire]) which is recorded as Hauersegg(e) in the 13th and 14th centuries. The place-name probably derives from an Old English personal name *Hæfer (genitive *Hæferes) + Old English ecg ‘edge ridge’ though it is possible that the first element is Old English hæfer ‘he-goat’ (genitive hæferes).

    Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press; they weirdly titlecase (<span style=”text-transform: capitalize”/> or CSS to the same effect) all of that at the link so you can’t see what words are actually capitalized.

    So “Goat’s ridge” — Crown would have liked that. Never mind if it was a guy called Goat or an actual goat. And getting from -f- to -dd- is pretty impressive, even if you had 700 years to carry it off. (Was the -dd- originally intended to have the Welsh reading, maybe?)

    Mr. Hæferesecg — rolls off the tongue, it does.

  39. David Marjanović says

    The place-name probably derives from an Old English personal name *Hæfer (genitive *Hæferes) + Old English ecg ‘edge ridge’ though it is possible that the first element is Old English hæfer ‘he-goat’ (genitive hæferes).

    That’s also what the reflex of the usual Germanic “oats” word should look like, right?

  40. January First-of-May says

    Old English hæfer ‘he-goat’

    Apparently unrelated to Modern English heifer “she-cow”, from Old English hēahfore. I wonder how similar the two words sounded in Old English…

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