wolf /wuulf/. noun or verb. A large, dog-like mammal. A voracious or cruel person. To gulp down.
A few years ago I read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Nick Jans’s most recent book: A Wolf Called Romeo. Thinking about Jans’ moving story of a wolf on the edge of civilization got me thinking about the word wolf itself, which led me down a surprisingly deep linguistic rabbit-hole—or should I say wolf’s den?
The wolf occupies a significant place in mythology going back to the earliest recorded tales and fables. Wolves were simultaneously objects of fear and admiration, seen both as ravenous, devilish, aggressive predators that terrorized people and livestock andcourageous, ferocious warriors of enviable spirit. Many ancient kings and warriors—not to mention some gods—Anglo-Saxon, Old German and Ancient Greek alike, took wolf on as part of their name. And Rome, arguably the greatest city of the ancient world, was supposedly founded by Romulus, one of a pair of twin brothers suckled by the she-wolf Lupercal in her den/cave, memorialized to this day by the famous La Lupa Capitolina statue, “the Capitoline Wolf.”
So it makes sense that Wolf is a truly old word, going back to the earliest Old English where, but for being spelled with a ‘u’, it was used as we do today…to refer to the fierce, beautiful animal and in various combinations to people who display wolf-like qualities. Keep in mind, if you remember struggling with Shakespeare, or even Chaucer, that Old English is considerably older than both of those and may as well be a foreign language…spotting a recognizable word in an Old English text is occasion for excitement for mono-linguals like myself. For example, theres a famous Old English poem called “Wulf and Eadwacer” that even experts can’t agree on, variously labeling it a riddle, a ballad, a song and an elegy!
But wolf’s roots go back even further into Old Saxon, Old Norse and Old German—the foundations of what became English—right back to the tasty PIE, the Proto-Indo-European language, wlkwo-. From wlkwo– come thousands of words in dozens of languages from Sanskrit and Old Persian to Albanian and Russian, but the most familiar to English speakers are the recognizable Greek and Latin cognates, lykos and lupus, recognizable today in tasty word treats like lycanthropy, the transformation—real or in madness imagined—of human to wolf, lyceum, the gardens in which Aristotle taught, now used to refer to buildings where lectures and concerts are held, and lupus, the inflammatory disease which felled Flannery O’Connor at just 39.
The disease was initially named lupus because in different forms the symptoms were considered wolf-like, whether because of a scaly rash or because the diseased parts of the body seemed to be quickly eaten away.
And in this way we see how the word wolf has survived in many other forms relating to the sometime mythical qualities associated with the animal: we are all familiar with the wolf-whistle and the boy who cried wolf; now you will understand why the aggressive Wolf Spider was given that name—no waiting around for prey to fall into its web—and how the saying to “have a wolf by the ears” came about to represent a desperate situation. And if you think about it, even calling the tomato—blood red and long considered poisonous—a “Wolf’s Peach” makes a satisfying kind of sense.
In keeping with the idea of wolves as ferocious, ravenous creatures, the wolf has also long been a symbol of lust. Roman (and now Italian) slang for a prostitute, lupa, literally means she-wolf and similar adoptions are found in other Romance languages including the spanish loba and the French louve. And in case you were wondering at that last one, the French louve is very close to the world famous museum, the Louvre, whose designer, Philip Augustus, originally designed as a kennel for breeding wolves and dogs. Incidentally, it wasn’t until the 13th century that the common usage shifted and wolves became primarily symbols of male, rather than female lust.