The Name of Doom

Sep 11th 2013

How's this for a literary murderers' row?

Mordred
Doctor Moreau
Professor Moriarity
The Morrigan
Voldemort
Mordor

The root "mor" is English literature's surest marker of dread. The classic examples above have rooted themselves so deeply in our culture that storytellers can tap into their sound for ready-made villainy. Videogames and comics are rife with diabolical Mordacks and Mordos.

The mor names also tap even deeper veins in our language. The names' individual origins vary. For instance, the mor in Moriarty comes from the Gaelic muir ("sea"), the mor in Moreau from Mauritania, and the mor in Morrigan probably from the same ancient root meaning "terror" as in the word nightmare.

But critically, all of these mors coincide with the Latin mors, meaning death. That root is ubiquitous in modern language, including English words like mortal, murder, moribund, and mortify.

On the face of it, then, the murderous mors seem like simply a part of our language of death. That would make them a rare example of names' cultural meanings arising directly from their linguistic derivations. But I think there's another piece to the puzzle. Consider this alternate list of English mor words:

morale
morals
mores
morality
amorous
enamored
innamorata

These positive terms, too, derive from powerful Latin sources. Amor is love, familiar from French amour, Italian amore, and more and more amor. Mores means conduct and morals. Yet neither of these admirable words has had much impact on English names, real or fictional. Amanda (via the Latin for "lovable") and actress Dorothy Lamour are as close as it gets.

In the world of names, then, death has triumphed over love and morality. And the path from linguistic origins to names seems to be paved with names themselves. Every Mordred and Voldemort strengthens the link between mor and mortality.

Comments

1
September 12, 2013 8:50 PM

Where does Morgan fit into this? Does the name predate the Arthurian romances?

2
September 12, 2013 11:39 PM

"These positive terms, too, derive from powerful Latin sources. Amor is love, familiar from French amour, Italian amore, and more and more amor. Mores means conduct and morals. Yet neither of these admirable words has had much impact on English names, real or fictional. Amanda (via the Latin for "lovable") and actress Dorothy Lamour are as close as it gets."

 

Um, no. If Amanda counts, then so do Amy, Aimee, Amabel, Amadeus.

Elizabeth T., the name Morgan first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Prior to Geoffrey that character is nameless.  There is an Old Welsh masculine name Morcant and an Irish Gaelic feminine name Muirgen which may have something to do with Geoffrey's choice of the name Morgan.  In these cases the Mor-/Muir- root means 'sea.' nothing to do with love or death.

Re Mordred, the earliest known form of the name is Medraut.  It also appears as Modred and Modrot, derived from the Latin Moderatus.  It's not derived from the root meaning death.  The first portrait of Mordred as the traitor in King Arthur's court occurs in Geoffrey of Monmouth, where the name appears as Modredus.  I would venture to say that the spelling Mordred comes from association with the French (ultimately from Latin) word "morte" which indeed appears in the title of some of the most influential medieval Arthurian texts.  This is similar to the name Tristan which is originally the Pictish name Drustan, a diminutive of Drust.  The spelling Tristan is influenced by the Latin/French Trist-, meaning 'sad'.  In the High Middle Ages when the story of Tristan and Isolde was a bestseller, the ancient Pictish kings named Drust had long been forgotten, so the name became Tristan and was etymologized as 'sad.'  The name Merlin is also influenced by French.  The original (Welsh) form of the name was Myrddin (-dd- pronounced as -th-).  Prior to Geoffrey of Monmouth Myrddin was a wild man of the woods and a prophet.  Geoffrey transforms Myddin into Merlin, the wizard of Arthur's court.  The change in the name is usually explained as a way of dealing with the fact that the Welsh Myrddin would become in French, Merde-, and, well, one couldn't have a character named Merde- in a courtly romance. 

3
September 13, 2013 7:40 AM

Thanks, Miriam! I love the idea of Merlin's name being Merde-. That's hilarious. My knowledge of Arthur is limited to Chrétien, and it's been a long time since I read him. 

4
October 30, 2013 10:08 PM

This blog made me laugh out loud, because I, too, have noticed the trend and also attributed it to the Latin root for "death."  I'm glad I'm not the only one who has come to this conclusion.

5
June 6, 2014 3:56 AM

Morten is a Scandinavian name that peaked in popularity between 1975 and 1985. Slightly under 1% of men in Norway currently bear this name.

Morten is related to Martin < Martinus < Martis < lat. Mars. Thus the name can be interpreted as “war-like”.

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