Bill Casselman

Increase your English Vocabulary with Common and Rare Tomb & Cemetery Synonyms

e.g. barrow, ossuary, charnelhouse, boot hill, sepulcher, necropolis and lich-rest

Tomb & Cemetery Words & Their Origins

At the Wording Desk

Polyandrion is a word for burial place. Are you ever going to hear the word polyandrion from an English speaker’s lips? Of course not! Then why learn these obscure rarities of English’s burial vocabulary? Because, if you are to proceed beyond the monosyllabic simplicities of mere introductory conversation in English, then you must read English of an historical nature, where you shall encounter the vast word hoard and the manifold synonyms whose abundant array blesses our language.

I maintain, for example, that you cannot become adept at the construction of magisterial English sentences of power and authority without reading some of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (where you will encounter the Latin term tumulus, a word for the mound of earth heaped over a burial site.) It was published in several volumes between 1777 and 1789. On every page Gibbon shows you word-order choices and modes of periodic sentence structure that are revelations, not to mention the deft linkage Gibbon performs with compound sentences. If you don't know these terms and plan to write English prose, well, you need to learn them and see them in action in the work of master writers.

Perusal of several chapters of Lord Macaulay’s The History of England from the Accession of James the Second (1848) will let you observe sonorous prose bricked in flowing sentence constructions by a true mason of words. Likewise, great writers of fiction show the English student how rich, flexuous and diverse an instrument our Anglo-Saxon tongue may be. Reading the novels of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Evelyn Waugh will improve your own perhaps dowdy, simple expository prose, even if written perforce to adorn the label of a soup can.

 About the succinct expression of crisp wit, a student will learn more by reading the novel Pictures from an Institution (1954) by American poet Randall Jarrell than by weeks spent in soporific stupor bent over a how-to-write-and-be-funny text by some vulgar television schlockmeister.

But let us now, reverend noggins humbly bowed, return to the sanctified loam of sundry churchyards.

Cemetery’s first meaning was bedroom. In classical Greek κοιμητήριον koimeterion signified ‘place to rest, place to sleep, dormitory.’ Only in later Christian writers looking for a euphemistic word to describe the grisly underground slots of the catacombs did the Latin borrowing coemētērium come to name a sort of ‘burial-ground.’

The Greek κοιμητήριον and the word coma share the same ancient Greek etymon. The Attic κῶμα koma referred to deep sleep or lethargy. Its full stem κῶμα κώματος koma komatos explains our adjective form comatose. Coma is related to Greek κεῖμαι keîmai “I lie down” and Greek κοιμάω ‎koimáō “I lay down, lull, put to sleep a child, calm another.” Only in much later British pathology did coma mean an unnatural unconsciousness often terminating in death.

Naming a mound or hill, barrow is the modern English reflex of the same Germanic root that gives Berg, modern German for mountain. By 1000 CE beorg also developed a secondary sense of earth mounded over a grave or a pile of stones heaped on a gravesite, a tumulus as the ancient Romans would have termed it.

Boot Hill
Scruffy, alone except for weed and wind, last resting place seen in many classic American western movies, Boot Hill was the name of many cemeteries in the Old West. Late in the 19th century Boot Hill became the title of choice for boneyards where gunslingers were buried, pistol-packing poltroons who died with their boots on, that is, died violently, pumped full of hot lead (bullets). The demise of these ornery cowpokes was not peaceful, abed in bare feet, tenderly tended by loved ones. The very first Boot Hill was at Hays, Kansas about 1870 CE. Wild Bill Hickok was sheriff in Hays in 1869.

This is not a classical Latin or classical Greek term. Naming a long underground vaulted tunnel with side slots for storing the bones of the dead, catacomb did not appear in late Latin until well into the fifth century CE and was a specific place name first. For more than a thousand years, catacomb regularly named only one Roman cemetery. The everyday Late Latin name for these subterranean vaults was cœmētēria ‘cemeteries.’ Cœmeterium Catacumbas was the name of the cemetery of Saint Sebastian out of Rome along the Appian Way. The other cemeteries were also named for their locations.

Modern etymologists think Catacumbas was a local place name, perhaps so old that it predated the Romans and was not even Latin. Various guesses down through the ages have suggested that catacomb might have been street Latin cata cumbas ‘near the tombs.’ Why then would uneducated Romans need to use a Greek preposition (kata) in an area that never saw true Greek invasion? Highly unlikely. Another problem: there exists no inscriptional or textual proof of “cata cumbas.” Cumbas, of course, would have to be an illiterate misspelling of tumbas, formally an accusative plural of the Latin word tumba ‘tomb.’ Funny. No other similar mistaken spelling appears in 1,500 years of Latin epigraphy.

Charnel House
This one stems through French from a Latin word for flesh caro, carnis. Think of English derivatives like carnal. Thus it was a house of dead flesh, a corpse room, a mortuary, a cemetery, any burial place. Its creepy sound came to taint the word and speakers of Victorian English shunned it.

The corpse box began in 14th century English as a mere transliteration of Greek κόϕινος kophinos ‘wicker basket, container woven of bulrushes’ and its borrowed-from-Greek Latin forms cophinus and cofinus. Over the next two hundred years coffin’s developed meaning in English came more and more to refer to the box in which a deceased person was buried.

Ancient Romans borrowed crypta or crupta from Hellenistic Greek where κρύπτη krupte meant ‘underground vault for burials’ from Greek κρυπτός ‘hidden, buried, concealed,’ part of the Greek verb κρύπτειν kruptein ‘to hide.’ Think of related words like cryptic, cryptanalysis ‘breaking up hidden codes’ and the crypto-Fascist who hides his true Fascist beliefs. Nowadays crypt often refers to an extensive burial place beneath a church or cathedral.

Its etymological sense is ‘hole dug’ from an Old English verb grafan ‘to dig.’ Compare with its Germanic reflex graben ‘to dig’ and with German das Grab ‘grave’ and German der Graben ‘ditch.’

English has the stark, blunt term graveyard but, perhaps surprisingly, German becomes evasive and euphemistic by calling its graveyard der Friedhof, not, as many Germans think, ‘yard of peace’ (German der Frieden ‘peace’) but actually meaning eingefriedetes Grundstück ‘enclosed plot of land.’ German does have more gruesome, more Teutonic but lesser used synonyms like Leichenacker ‘corpse field’ and Totenacker ‘field for dead bodies.’

This is our most obscure and obsolete graveyard word where lych is an older English word for a dead body. Compare its modern German cognate die Leiche ‘corpse.’ Also sometimes heard among rural speakers in Britain is lyke-wake, in which relatives of the deceased keep a watch over the dead body by night, lest the deceased feel too alone. A lyke-wake is usually performed at home, but may take place at a funeral parlour or church.

This is just Hellenistic Greek for ‘city of the dead,’ applied first as a name for part of the ancient city of Alexandria. Think of other ‘polis’ words in English: Acropolis, cosmopolitan, metropolitan, police, polity and political.

The operative root is Latin os, ossis ‘bone.’ Classical Latin ossuārium was a stone urn or terra-cotta receptacle for dead bones, later meaning a charnel house or cemetery.

This rarity is used chiefly in texts about ancient Greek history and was borrowed into English from post-classical Latin polyandrium, itself snitched from Hellenistic Greek πολυάνδριον poluandrion, literally ‘many-people place’ from Greek πολύς polus ‘many’ + Greek ἀνήρ, ἀνδρος aner, andros ‘man, male, person.’ It referred to a place of burial for many people, as opposed to a solitary tomb.

Latin sepulcrum arises out of sepultus ‘buried,’ a past participle of sepelire ‘to bury,’ cognate with Greek hepein ‘to care for’ and with Sanskrit saparyati ‘he honors.’  A sepulcher (more common spelling sepulchre) is a more ornate than usual tomb or building designed for the interment of an important human or divine body.

The Latin etymon appears in several English words now mostly sunk into the swamp of desuetude near the bog of obsolescence. How many now know that a gentleman sepult is one buried? Occasionally some sniffish author will seek a synonym for burial and find sepulture. But his newspaper editor will red-pencil the rarity as obscure and therefore offensive to readers. Said editor would never have met Alexander Pope’s delicious Englishing of The Iliad (1720 CE) “The common Rites of Sepulture bestow, / To sooth a Father's and a Mother's Woe.”

Now, fast falls the eventide. Abide with thine own stern counsel about any tall tales from the ancient Near East concerning life after death or little angels with feathery winglets, plump-bummed putti in abbreviated white nighties elevatoring dear Dada up, up, up, into the cerulean stratosphere, waftee toward a highly dubious paradise.

Bill Casselman copyright 2016

August 13, 2016

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