- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) the horn of a unicorn
If the HH Twitter feed proves one thing and one thing only, it’s that there really is a word for everything. Case in point, it turns out there’s apparently a separate word for the horn of a unicorn: should you ever come across one, it’s an alicorn.
At least, that’s what some dictionaries would have you believe. Nowadays, that word has been commandeered, and it’s now more likely to be encountered as the name of a winged or flying unicorn in particular. (We have it on good authority, too, that a flying Pegasus-style unicorn is properly called a pegacorn.)
There’s actually quite a murky old tale attached to all this, with words being repeatedly mistaken, misinterpreted and misused over some three centuries or so. But before we tackle all that, let’s start with the unicorns themselves.
English first adopted the word unicorn from Latin in the Middle English period. Yes, the ‘uni–’ of unicorn is the same root as in words like unity and universe: it’s related to the Latin for ‘one’, and tends to be used to form words bearing some sense of singularity. (It’s also related to the word onion, because all the concentric layers of a chopped onion have a common centre.) And yes, the ‘–corn’ part is the same as in words like Capricorn and cornucopia, and comes from a Latin word for an animal’s horn. (Incidentally, it is related to the cornea in your eye, which was apparently so named because of it’s horn-like consistency.)
But despite appearances, the word unicorn is also the origin of alicorn—albeit thanks to one or two errors along the way.
First of all, in a handful of European Romance languages, the N in Latin unicorn happens to have morphed into an L. In Italian, unicorns were apparently crossbred with lions, and the old Italian word lione was tagged onto their name to produce a mythical beast called the licorno—an old fashioned name for a single-horned horse that still survives in some Italian dialects today. In French, unicorn was misanalyzed, and underwent the same kind of process that changed ‘naprons’ into aprons and ‘ekenames’ into nicknames in English: French speakers mistakenly interpreted unicorn as ‘un icorn’, and so wrongly imagined the creature itself was called an icorn, plus the indefinite article un. Add the French definite article to that and you get l’icorn—which was then misinterpreted again, to create the modern French une licorne.
From there, we can jump forward a century or so to 1607, and the publication of an English guide to Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. It included the word alicorn as the Italian equivalent of the Greek word for a unicorn, monoceros. (Yes, that’s the same ‘–ceros’ as in rhinoceros.) Quite where that initial A had now come from is unclear; perhaps the author misheard or misinterpreted the original Italian, or erroneously added an English indefinite article onto the front of it. But, no matter—by the late seventeenth century, the word alicorn was being copied into other English bestiaries, like this frankly terrifying one from 1678:
But there was a problem.
English already had a couple of names for legendary single-horned horses (we’d been calling them unicorns for 400 years or so by then), so we didn’t really know what to do with alicorn. As a result, it appears to have quickly fallen out of use, and didn’t really resurface again in our language until the early 1900s—notably, in the hands of the American poet and Pulitzer-winning writer and editor (and former Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut, no less) Odell Shepard.
In 1930, Shepard published The Lore of the Unicorn, a lengthy treatise on the history of unicorn myths and legends—and, notably, the creature’s supposed usefulness in alternative medicine. Unicorn horns have been claimed to have medicinal qualities since antiquity, and for centuries countless examples of them (more often than not, actually narwhal tusks) have been kept as prized possessions in museums, private collections and cabinets of curiosities.
In discussing the uses of unicorn horns in particular, Odell decided that, “to avoid repeated cacophony I shall use the word ‘alicorn’ to mean ‘unicorn’s horn’ wherever it seems convenient to do so.” Although he was using the word in a different way to its previous incarnation, he felt the need to point out that it wasn’t his own invention: “This is not quite a neologism,” he continued, “it is an adoption of the Italian word alicorno.”
A new meaning had arrived. The Oxford English Dictionary picked up on it, and added Odell’s use of alicorn to mean the horn of a unicorn (or, as their definition astutely puts it, “a horn ... alleged to be obtained from the unicorn”) in 2012.
But now, things have changed again. The My Little Pony franchise appears to have been the first to readopt the word alicorn as a specific name for a flying unicorn, and it is this that since appears to have become the word’s most widespread use. Whether it too will end up in the dictionary one day, we’ll have to wait and see.