You are in the woods, when you hear a growl. A bear lumbers toward you and you freeze in fear. The bear can kill you.
This is how the ancient Germanic tribes felt when they encountered bears so many years ago. They didn’t dare utter the actual name of the bear, considering it taboo, but called it “the brown one” instead.
Over time, the name has shortened to bruin and into bear in the English language.
Before the Germanic language differed from other languages, the word for the actual animal in Proto-Indo-European is *rtko, reconstructed from Latin ursus and Greek arktos.
We see remnants of the original animal name in various names. For example, the star constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are named Greater Bear and Lesser Bear in Latin. We have the English boy name Orson, which means “bear cub.”
I originally learned about the taboo history around bear in my History of the English Language course at Brigham Young University in 2003. The professor assigned us to write a poem later during the semester and I chose “The Brown One.”
A child taunted the younger ones
Yelling, “Ursu! Ursu! Ursu!”
The younger ones scattered abroad
Shrieking aloud, “Curse you! Curse you!”
The brown one lurked in the forest,
Ready to pounce on the slow soon dead.
His eyes traveled from child to child
Then head to head of the most well-fed.