by guest blogger Jolaine Incognito
The ancient Egyptian word for “mummy” was sah, meaning “nobility” and “dignity.”
So where did the English word “mummy” come from?
There once was a substance called pissasphalt. Pissasphalt was a semi-liquid bituminous substance resembling bitumen mixed with pitch. Pissasphalt was believed to have medicinal properties. Pisassphalt could be used as a fragrance or as an emollient. For a time, people believed that the Egyptians embalmed their dead with pissasphalt. (Seriously, with a word like “pissasphalt” to play with, would you use pronouns?)
A thousand years ago (give or take) Latin and Arabic respectively used the words mummia and mmiy or mūmiya to denote bituminous substances. These words derived from the Persian word mūm, meaning “wax”. A few hundred years later, the word attracted a connotation of a bituminous substance used medicinally or for embalming – although why anyone needed a synonym for pissasphalt, I’ll never know.
Mumia appeared in Spanish, meaning either “bitumen” or “liquid issuing from mummified human flesh.” Not to be left out, the Portuguese used maminha to mean “tarry substance secreted by mummified bodies.” Swedes, Germans and Danes all used the word mumie, while the Dutch squandered their ems on mummie.
There was little, it seems, that a corpse’s ooze could not achieve. A seventeenth-century text claimed that “true mumie” was “the uniuersal medicine, and the true balsam conseruing and restoring nature.” In 1886, mummy was prescribed for “cases of severe prostration and debility.” In 1716, Alexander Pope recommended “The Mummy of some deceas’d Moderator of the General Assembly in Scotland, to be taken inwardly as an effectual Antidote against Antichrist.”
Then the word took a connotative digression toward violence. Since “mummy” essentially meant “a pulpy substance or mass,” it was inevitable that it would give rise to expressions such as “beat to mummy”, or Emily Brontë’s variant, “thrashing him to a mummy.”
Finally, after first meaning “the stuff used to mummify a corpse” (pissasphalt!), and then meaning “the stuff that leaks out of a mummified corpse”, the word “mummy” worked its way around to meaning “mummified corpse.”
Or, to summarize a different way: A thousand years ago, a person who heard the word “mummy” would think “petroleum pulp.” Six hundred years ago, the same person would think “extruded gut pulp,” and two hundred years ago, “beaten to a pulp.” Today, a person who hears “mummy” is likely to think “pulp fiction.”
Next time: Mummies in Literature
- Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights.