Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

19 April, 2012

Words, Words, Words: Siren

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

Picture a siren.

Now, chances are that you’re imagining one of these two things:

"The Siren" by John William Waterhouse

Possibly more mermaidish.

Fire engine siren.

Probably also involving an auditory dimension.

Those are certainly the two things I associate with the word “siren”: Pretty women luring Greek sailors to their deaths, and loud noise makers heralding the arrival of emergency services. Because this is the way my mind works, I suddenly started wondering yesterday how that word came to mean both.

I mean, obviously the mythological sirens came first, but how did the concept of evil temptress women singing an irresistibly beautiful song develop into the word for obnoxious and penetrating howls of hideous noise? Speculating wildly, it might have something to do with the idea of a sound that cannot be ignored, that demands attention and reaction, but that seems a bit high concept for a common word.

Of course, words change meanings in weird ways all the time, and diving into the etymologies of  the most innocent terms can lead to some amusing discoveries, but this one seems so strange to me because we still have the original meaning with us. Maybe it’s not the everyday usage, but I think most people will have heard of the sirens Odysseus escaped. Time for some cursory research.

The sirens of mythology, which incidentally are the main “Siren” article on wikipedia, were female creatures with hypnotic voices who got their jollies by tricking sailors into wrecking their ships. As in the painting above, they then presumably had a good laugh while the sailors drowned. They’re often depicted as mermaids or other sea-dwelling creatures, but in the original tale they were women living on an island, not in the sea itself.

What of the noisy siren, then? Where did that get its name? Wikipedia’s article, this time under “Siren (noisemaker)” claims that the first sirens were used as musical instruments, and the first model to be given the name, from 1819, got it because it “could produce sound under water, suggesting a link with the sirens of Greek mythology”. Ah, see, now it all makes sense. It was made for music, and the mythological sirens made music. The noisy version must have come much later. As for the underwater part, it would hardly be the first time something was named based on a misunderstanding of source material.

The Online Etymology Dictionary (what, you haven’t added that as a custom search in your browser?) says that the first recorded use of “siren” to mean “device that makes a warning sound” comes in 1879, sixty years after the instrument version, so it apparently took people a while to realise that this maybe wasn’t the best sound to listen to for fun. Or maybe it was?



  1. I want more posts like this one!

    Comment by Loki — 19 April, 2012 @ 10:37

  2. There’ll be another one the very next time such a fancy takes me to an interesting result.

    Comment by Obdormio — 19 April, 2012 @ 22:02

  3. I’d say “yay!”, but somehow, experience tells me maybe jubilations would be premature at this juncture.

    Comment by Loki — 20 April, 2012 @ 10:29

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