Since last week I examined the Greek-mythology-origins of the word clue, I thought I’d stick to the theme and do another word from Greek mythology today. This one I’ve known for many years, so I always just assumed everyone else knew it too…but of course, not everyone has studied the Greeks as much as I have, so let’s take a look!
Panic. We all know the meaning…and the feeling. It’s that sudden fright or terror. That feeling of pulse-pounding dread. Looking at the definition, however, taught me something–it’s specifically fright or fear or dread of the unknown or without a clear cause. So, losing it when your airplane goes out of control isn’t panic–but that sudden fear when you’re walking along a perfectly safe road or hear a weird noise or go into your own dark basement where nothing bad has ever happened is.
What I also hadn’t realized was that the word originally meant “mass hysteria”–it was only used when that feeling hit multiple people at once.
Why? Where did it come from? From the Greek, meaning “pertaining to Pan.” Pan was a minor god, the god of woods and fields, of shepherds and flocks. He’s often pictured as a faun, with goat legs and a human torso (though not always)–and he always, ALWAYS has a set of pipes in hand. That is, in fact, a key part of the myth and the word panic.
Pan, you see, was attributed as the one responsible for those sudden, unexplained noises that caused herd or flocks (of animals or people) to panic, especially when out in the countryside in lonely places. He would play his pipes, and our mortal ears wouldn’t quite know what to make of the godly music, and … there you go. Panic, which is actually short for panikon deima, or “panic fright,” literally “the fright caused by Pan.”
We’ve been using the word in English as a modifying adjective (panic fright) from the 1600s, and then independently as a noun (“he was in a panic”) from about 1708. Interestingly, the verb didn’t come along until 1827, and it first appeared as “to afflict with panic.” Our meaning today of “lose one’s head, get into a panic” didn’t come along until 1902! Panic-stricken is from 1804 and panic-attack from 1970.