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.

  • 1
    I think this is an extremely interesting question, but it has nothing to do with English. – Peter Shor Jan 30 '14 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 '14 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. – Peter Shor Jan 30 '14 at 22:12
  • @PeterShor Okay. I'm more concerned with people thinking that they were real. – user39425 Jan 30 '14 at 22:18
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    @fredsbend Good news, there are real dragons. – Elliott Frisch Jan 31 '14 at 0:39

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". – Kristina Lopez Jan 30 '14 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 '14 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. :-) – Kristina Lopez Jan 30 '14 at 22:25
  • Ok you can shoot me now :-) – Å Stuart Jan 30 '14 at 22:26
  • No shooting, just edjumacating! :-) – Kristina Lopez Jan 30 '14 at 22:48

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


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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