Mythology has given us many names for monsters that have then taken on extended meanings.
It’s almost time for Halloween, a time for all things spooky and scary. And what’s scarier than monsters?
Today we’re going to talk about four normal words that are derived from the names of monsters and other mythical beings.
Pull the blanket over your head if you need to! Here we go.
You probably learned in fifth grade that the hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps us create and retain memories. (5) But you might not know that it is named after a mythological creature called the “Hippocamp.” This was the water horse in the classical mythology of Greece and Rome.
The word comes from the Greek “hippos,” meaning “horse,” and “kampos,” meaning sea monster. (1) And indeed, the hippocamp had the top half of a horse, and the bottom half of a fish or dolphin. The hippocamp was said to pull the chariot of the sea god Poseidon. He sometimes even let Poseidon or other nymphs ride on him. (9)
Real-life seahorses look somewhat like the mythical Hippocamp. Because of this, scientists named the genus that seahorses and seadragons reside in “Hippocampus.”
Why does the memory region of our brains also have this name? Because it, in turn, looks like a seahorse! It’s shaped like a C, with a chubby top and a long, curving tail.
Next, we’re going to talk about the Chimera.
The Chimera was another monster from Greek mythology. Its name comes from the Greek word “khimaira,” meaning “she-goat.” (1) It was said to have the head and front legs of a lion, the body of a goat, and the hindquarters of a serpent. It was sometimes shown with the heads of all three animals set along its body.
In case you thought this ugly creature might get lonely, don’t worry. It had a lot of siblings. There was the Sphinx, with the head of a human and the back of a lion; the Hydra, a serpent with many heads; Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the underworld; and the Nemean Lion, who terrorized the people of Nemea before being killed by Hercules. (9)
Because the Chimera was such a fanciful creature—it was made of three different animals, after all—its name came to suggest “the impossible.” Today, it refers to an illusion, or an unrealizable dream. For example, a pessimist might say that having all humanity get along peacefully is just a chimera.
Recently, this word has taken on a new meaning closer to its roots. In scientific terms, a “chimera” is a hybrid of two different species. Scientists create the hybrid by injecting stem cells from one species into the embryo of another. (2) One goal of this research is to grow human organs in the laboratory to help sick people who are waiting for organ transplants. But the ethics of creating chimeras with both human and animal cells are still under debate.