• banshee •
bæn-shee • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: (Irish legend) A female spirit that howls to warn of an impending death in the family.
Notes: This lexical orphan is most often used in idiomatic phrases like 'howl like a banshee' or 'wail like a banshee', usually referring to a woman. (Hear Henry Cowell's version of a banshee wail here.)
In Play: The original sense of today's Good Word is rarely used today outside Irish folklore: "When the patient inquired, "Well, who's the banshee?" of his visitors, no one caught the joke." The banshee wail is used figuratively quite often: "The scene of the multicar crash was horrific, accompanied by the sirens of ambulances and police cars wailing like banshees." As often, the wail is omitted and only the sense of "bad spirit" is retained: "The whole family ate like crazed banshees over Christmastide."
Word History: In Irish Gaelic the PIE word for woman, gwen- was converted to bean "woman". It was used with sídhe "an underground place inhabited by fairies or the fairies who dwell therein" in the phrase bean sídhe "wailing female spirit of death". English collapsed this phrase into one word by folk etymology: banshee. Gwen- has been discussed elsewhere. If sidhe looks like sit, it should, because it comes from the same PIE source. It came to mean where fairies were situated, another word from PIE sed-/sod- "sit, set, seat". Latin sedere "to sit, seat", German sitzen "to sit", Lithuanian sèdèti "to sit", Welsh seddu "to seat", Russian sidet' "to sit" all come from the same PIE word. (Now let's congratulate Jackie Strauss for her 15 years of suggesting excellent Good Words like today's.)
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