Run for your life

You are being chased through a thick pursued by horrific creatures – half man and half goat. Your heart is racing as you run, stumbling over roots and bushes, thorns ripping at your clothes and branches whipping at your face and hands.

Behind you, the forest echoes with the blood curdling yelps and cries of the pursuing host. They are faster than you, more nimble in the forest, darting through the trees until they surround you. You fall, collapsing in blind panic as the unearthly beings close in.

And so, in slightly roundabout way, we get to the etymological origin for the word ‘panic’. In modern English, panic has come to mean a feeling of sudden terror, a wild and unreasoning state of fear. The ancient Greeks had a far more specific meaning for the word – it started life as a description of the terror induced by the god Pan.

The god Pan was the Greek god of wild places, nature, deep and dense forests, inaccessible mountain passes and valleys. He was thought to frequent wild hilltops, deserted caves and remote, lonely places. The terror inducing sounds and echoes that fired already nervous minds and the fears experienced in such places came to be attributed directly to the patron god.

Over time, Pan was forgotten along with the rest of the ancient pantheon. Although he was replaced with new gods, his terrifying legacy would live on in the word panic.

This is one of the many splendid nuggets I came across reading the rather wonderful Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth (of the Inky Fool blog).