Random Werewolf Fact #3 – Etymology



Lots of people like to shorten “werewolf” or any of the newfangled similar shapeshifters (werecoyotes, wererats, whatever) to “were,” and basically make them a race. The trouble is, that’s just calling them “men.” Which makes the literal meaning of something like the “Weretouched” subclass in Pathfinder, for instance, suddenly kind of awkward.

The word “werewolf” comes from late Old English, a combination of “were,” meaning “man,” and of course “wolf.” Werewolves have had countless names over the centuries, but this is the one that stuck, after its first use during the Middle Ages (that we know of, at least). There are lots of variants in different languages over the centuries, of course – varulf (Swedish), werwolf (German), weerwolf (Middle Dutch), garwal or garwalf (Anglo-Norman), etc., thanks to werewolves being so widespread.

Then there’s also an ulfhedinn (or, more properly, ulfheðinn), a wolf-warrior of the berserker variety – because most berserkers weren’t bears, and berserker means “bare of shirt,” not “bear-shirt.” That’s been a big argument in academia for a long time now, because someone really ran with the latter idea and it stuck. More on berserkers later.

There’s also “lycanthropy,” from Greek “lykos,” meaning wolf, and “anthropos,” meaning man. The term lycanthropy actually didn’t come into common usage until around the late Middle Ages, despite originating with Galen. It was, originally, only ever used to describe what we now call “clinical lycanthropy,” or a ravenous, wolf-like appetite. And, later, the hallucination that one is turning into a wolf. Popular culture latched onto the term and used it for the actual curse, hence why people today put “clinical” in front of the real cases of such hallucinations that are still out there today.

There are a bunch of other terms for werewolves out there, but “werewolf” and “lycanthrope” (and of course “lycanthropy”) are by far the most common. But if you run into a versipellis (turn-skin or change-skin; Latin), a varcolac (wolf-skin; Slavic), a kveldulf (evening-wolf; Scandinavian), or any other number of terms, you still just met a werewolf. And a werewolf by any other name…