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Today, the term dragon is universally used for mythical, non-existent creatures that resemble dinosaurs in some ways. I thought I heard once from someone quoting a dictionary from 1600 something that the definition was "A very rare, but still living creature". This implies that the author thought that dragons were a real thing.

I don't expect there to be much overlap today from its ancient use because there is a lot of entertainment fiction written on the subject since 1900.

I want to know how the word has been used in the past and if there were descriptions of what a dragon actually is/was from before 1850's, when the word "dinosaur" was coined. I am also particularly interested if the people of those times thought the creatures were real.

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    I think this is an extremely interesting question, but it has nothing to do with English. Jan 30, 2014 at 21:46
  • @PeterShor Well, I realize that there is a translation for "dragon" in many cultures and languages, past and present, but I want the question to focus exclusively on English use. I want to verify if that 1600's definition is true.
    – user39425
    Jan 30, 2014 at 22:01
  • By looking in Shakespeare, you can see that in his time, people thought that dragons had wings, tails, scales, were fierce, and breathed fire. This isn't too different from today's definition. Jan 30, 2014 at 22:12
  • @PeterShor Okay. I'm more concerned with people thinking that they were real.
    – user39425
    Jan 30, 2014 at 22:18
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    @fredsbend Good news, there are real dragons. Jan 31, 2014 at 0:39

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Yes, the word dragon was used for living creatures in the past.

Here is the obsolete definition from OED:

A huge serpent or snake; a python. Obs. (exc. in etymol. use).

The earliest citation in OED is from c1220:

Ðe dragunes one ne stiren nout..oc daren stille in here pit.

Bestiary 759

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This goes very far back in time indeed - right to the Indo-European era. There is a book that talks about the common features of Indo-European speech and poetry - still to be seen in kindred languages such as Greek, Sanskrit, Old Irish, Latin, English, etc.

It's titled How to kill a dragon, using the dragon as one theme that was common to the poetries of nations that inherited this common culture.

Of course, this doesn't directly answer your question, but this question, interesting as it is, is the topic of a book or two, like the one I recommend.

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    Interesting but not really an answer for the OP's question unless you can include excerpts from the book that directly answer "how the word has been used in the past and if there were descriptions of what a dragon actually is/was from before 1850's". Jan 30, 2014 at 22:20
  • Sorry, I agree, but it's a rather long answer. My current answer exhorts the asker to look for the book, or excerpts of it.
    – Å Stuart
    Jan 30, 2014 at 22:22
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    Except this isn't a resource recommendation site, it's an English language usage site where we want all the nitty gritty in the answer. :-) Jan 30, 2014 at 22:25
  • Ok you can shoot me now :-)
    – Å Stuart
    Jan 30, 2014 at 22:26
  • No shooting, just edjumacating! :-) Jan 30, 2014 at 22:48
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Lifted from Scifi.SE; Why model Smaug after a cat? Excerpt from Wad Cheber's answer, mentioning the earliest 'definition' of dragon that I'm aware of:

The Chinese dragon appears to have had a significant influence on the Japanese dragon. The Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) scholar Wang Fu wrote, of traditional Chinese dragon imagery,

(recording Chinese myths that long dragons had nine anatomical resemblances):

The people paint the dragon's shape with a horse's head and a snake's tail. Further, there are expressions as 'three joints' and 'nine resemblances' (of the dragon), to wit: from head to shoulder, from shoulder to breast, from breast to tail. These are the joints; as to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his antlers resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam (shen, 蜃), his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow. Upon his head he has a thing like a broad eminence (a big lump), called [chimu] (尺木). If a dragon has no [chimu], he cannot ascend to the sky.

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The Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 has some interesting definitions that vary quite drastically.

DRAGON, noun [Latin , Gr., G.]

  1. A kind of winged serpent, much celebrated in the romances of the middle ages.

  2. A fiery, shooting meteor, or imaginary serpent.

Swift, swift, ye dragons of the night! That dawning may bear the ravens eye.

  1. A fierce, violent person, male or female; as, this man or woman is a dragon

  2. A constellation of the northern hemisphere. [See Draco.]

DRAGON, noun A genus of animals, the Draco. They have four legs, a cylindrical tail, and membranaceous wings, radiated like the fins of a flying-fish.

The first definition acknowledges a fictional creature, but the last seems to talk about a non-fictional creature. To me it’s possible that a creature used to exist called a dragon however tales were made that exaggerated what it was creating the fictional dragon we know today. A similar thing happened with the idea of Unicorns.

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  • Draco is indeed a genus of flying lizards in the family Agamidae. Webster's definition is still valid.
    – Tevildo
    Aug 29, 2023 at 21:25
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The description of Leviathan God inspires in Job 41 (including v21:

  • Its breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from its mouth

[NIV; Bible Gateway]) indicates to fundamentalists that fire-breathing creatures once co-existed with man. The first independent clause precludes a metaphorical interpretation. See, for instance, David Guzik's commentary.

National Geographic once had an article theorising about whether a head cavity in a certain dinosaur might have contained auto-combusting (in air) phosphines. And in fact the Septuagint translated into Greek between thethird century BCE and the 2nd century BCE) even uses the word δρακωον (dragon) for Leviathan.

The description given in Job (including that this creature was feared by sailors) is quite detailed, but (pictorial) illustrations will be fanciful rather than accurate.

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