A wyvern is an imaginary animal with the wings of a dragon and feet like eagle talons beneath a bifid serpent’s tail. The wyvern is an important symbol in heraldry. Here’s the passage where I discovered the word: “We first encounter the ‘imperial swagger’ of the British Empire, according to Schama, in the popular portraits — one of them ‘painted on the same English oak from which his ships were built’ — of that predatory pirate-patriot Sir Francis Drake: ‘small, wiry, blue-eyed.’ Like some character from ‘Game of Thrones,’ Drake, ‘the first truly famous Englishman,’ was often depicted accompanied by ­leather-winged ­dragons, known as wyverns, his personal mascots. He was encouraged by representatives of the ‘bling-happy’ Queen Elizabeth I to ‘go rogue’ in the ­Caribbean and elsewhere, making the world safe (and lucrative) for Protestantism.”

─ from a book review in The New York Times by Christopher Benfey, September 22, 2016 of  The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits, Simon Schama, illustrated., 603 pages, Oxford University Press.

Incidentally I bought the Schama book. It is a fascinating read, like all his work.

A Creature’s Etymology
Wyvern is the noun wyver with the addition of an excrescent –n. Wyver is an obsolete term for a viper or snake, from Old French wyvre, wivre, guivre (French guivre , givre (from Latin vipera ‘viper, snake’), possibly all from Latin vibrare ‘to glisten,’ said of light that "vibrates" like the scales of some serpents. La guivre was a fabled medieval dragon-like beast.

This barghest was a night-visiting goblin in English folklore, often in the shape of a large dog and believed to appear portending someone’s imminent death or severe personal misfortune.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests a tentative etymology as a German doublet, Berg-Geist ‘mountain-demon’ or ‘gnome of the Alps.’ Other guesses were a derivation from German Bahre ‘bier, hearse’ or Bear-Ghost from German Bär bear, with reference to its alleged shaggy, pseudo-canine form.

My exemplary sentences:
The inspector suddenly stood up from the jail desk and ran his hands through thick hair at both sides of his head. He reared like a colossal wyvern on hind legs getting ready to devour a choirboy.

The doctor looked serious and purred softly,”Ventricular fibrillation is customarily a terminal event.”
“You mean, Aunt Betty’s going to kick the bucket?”
Primly, silently, the doctor nodded.
The old sexton of the church said, “Them as lives nearby have heard the howlin' of the barghest. Folks saw a cloud like a black dog go full across the moon.”


Bill Casselman, October 29, 2017

My Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman



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At the Wording Desk

Bill Casselman

Increase your English Halloween Vocabulary by learning two rare monster words