A post in the Pairodox blog a few months ago dealt with a modern implementation of an ancient Roman catapult-type weapon known as an onager. Not having heard of it before, I looked it up in my Latin dictionary and found that the term originally referred to a type of wild donkey. When I looked further, I discovered that English has carried the word over for both the animal and the ancient siege weapon named after it. Then I checked to see if Spanish has a version of the word and I found that it does: onagro, which likewise serves for the animal and the siege weapon.

It turns out that Latin onager (which also appeared in the form onagrus) is opaque, meaning that it’s hard to recognize its etymological components. Latin took the word from Greek onagros, which was barely less opaque. Its first element was onos, a cognate of English ass and of the Latin asinus that has become asno in Spanish. The second element in the Greek compound was agrios ‘wild,’ in which we recognize relatives in Latin ager ‘field’ and native English acre. In light of those two components, we can see that for the Greeks an onagros was literally a ‘wild ass.’

Here’s something curious that just struck me: the word onager is an anagram of orange, and neither word rhymes with anything else in English.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Jan 21, 2015 @ 11:45:23

    Like an ass, I tried the google machine. http://bit.ly/1E2tK4V


  2. kathryningrid
    Jan 26, 2015 @ 16:15:11

    Ha! Leave it to you to target that connection.


  3. shoreacres
    Jan 30, 2015 @ 19:59:31

    Actually, there’s a contemporary event where onagers are used: along with other sorts of catapults, cannon, and plain old human strength. That would be at the annual Fruitcake Toss, in Manitou Springs, Colorado. I wouldn’t say the people involved are asses, but they do make use of an empty field.

    And they have an Angry Birds Tossing Team.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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