Are the words "phoenix" and "Phoenicia" cognate?

The phoenix had a purple-red colour, similar to or the same as the colour produced by the purple-red dye that Phoenicia was famous in both Greece and Rome for trading in. Some leaders of the Roman republic wanted the Phoenician city of Carthage destroyed (Carthago delenda est), given the instances of its being able to arise again after defeat, a bouncing back that recalls the repeated rebirth of the mythological bird. But I haven't found unassailable evidence for the words being cognate - it's tantalising!

  • 4
    Where did you look to (not) find the "unassailable evidence" you mention? It is customary on EL&U to save answers the trouble of duplicating research already done by questioners--this is accomplished by questioners citing the sources they've already investigated, and the results of their investigation (which last you've done).
    – JEL
    Jan 12, 2016 at 1:10
  • etymonline.com/…
    – Mitch
    Jan 12, 2016 at 2:39

3 Answers 3


As you say, the evidence is "not unassailable". OED Online gives two views of the development of 'Phoenician'. One view presents 'Phoenix' and 'Phoenicia' as cognate, the other does not. As cognates, this development is shown:

Ancient Greek Φοῖνιξ Phoenician probably represents a use of ϕοῖνιξ dark red (adjective and noun) < ϕοινός red (perhaps originally blood-red < the same Indo-European base as bane n.1) + -ικ-, suffix forming nouns. The chief sense of ϕοῖνιξ in Greek is dark red, tawny (e.g. of a bay horse, of a rusty-red river); the sense ‘purple’ appears to be secondary. The use of this word for the Phoenicians is therefore probably to be explained as denoting reddish or tanned people, rather than those who imported purple dye (for which the Greek word was πορϕύρα: see purpure n. and adj.).

The parallel story associates 'Phoenician' with either the name of a clan of a Hebrew tribe, or an Egyptian word, attested considerably earlier than the clan name, designating "countries of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard". The Egyptian word is related to another Egyptian word meaning 'carpentering', and the view presented by OED Online points out that Phoenicia was a primary source of the timber used in Egypt:

An alternative view is that Ancient Greek Φοῖνιξ represents an assimilation to the form of the ancient Greek adjective of a derivative of the Semitic word for the madder plant Rubia tinctorum, Arabic fūwa, apparently related to Hebrew puwwāh, pū'āh, the name of a clan of the tribe of Issachar, which has the gentilic form pūnī. However, the ancient Egyptian word fnḫw is attested very much earlier (from about 2300 b.c. onwards) as a word for the countries of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, and is also related to a word meaning ‘carpentering’, which appears significant in view of the fact that Phoenicia was the chief source of good timber for Egypt.

["Phoenician, n. and adj.". OED Online. December 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/142593?redirectedFrom=phoenician (accessed January 11, 2016).]

The OED Online scholars seem to prefer the view of 'Phoenicia' and 'Phoenix' as cognates; however, they are anything but unequivocal about their preference.

Online Etymology (OE) is also equivocal about the origins of 'Phoenix' and 'Phoenicia'. The folk etymologists that produce OE, however, endorse the explanation that the use of the word ϕοῖνιξ meaning 'dark red, tawny' is associated with people "who imported purple dye" as opposed to the more probable denotation of "reddish or tanned people" (OED).

About 'Phoenix' (Greek ϕοῖνιξ), OE has this to say:

...literally "purple-red," perhaps a foreign word (Egyptian has been suggested), or from phoinos "blood-red." The exact relation and order of the senses in Greek is unclear.

(From "Phoenix", at Online Etymology.)

And about 'Phoenician', OE gives this:

...perhaps literally "land of the purple" (i.e., source of purple dye, the earliest use of which was ascribed to the Phoenicians by the Greeks). Identical with phoenix (q.v.), but the relationship is obscure.

(From "Phoenician", at Online Etymology.)

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    In actuality, the bird the phoenix myth originated from was quite likely pink. But possibly by the time the legend reached Egypt, the phoenix had turned red. Jan 13, 2016 at 22:46
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    @PeterShor Not surprising—the sun’s quite strong in Egypt, it probably got sunburnt. Sep 5, 2017 at 13:33

Here is what I found from Trieste (Italy) University about the Phoenix (the bird).


La leggenda della Fenice sembra iniziare dunque in età arcaica (con Esiodo) e classica, e almeno a partire da Erodoto è collegata con la Fenicia, l'Arabia e soprattutto con l'Egitto. Donde il prevedibile ricorso a un'etimologia egiziana, da bjn "probably pronounced "bo-in", che indicherebbe sia la palma φοῖνιξ che questo uccello (D'Arcy Thompson, A Glossary of gr. Birds p. 306 ).

Translated means: the legend of the Phoenix (bird) from Herodotus is connected with Phoenicia (region) and Egypt, but mostly with Egypt. The etymology is probably Egyptian, from "bjn", which would indicate both the palm tree and the bird, both of them having the same greek word φοῖνιξ.


Did you try simply looking in a dictionary? For example, on dictionary.com, the etymology listed for "phoenix" reads:

before 900; < Latin < Greek phoînix a mythical bird, purple-red color, Phoenician, date palm; replacing Middle English, Old English fēnix < Medieval Latin; Latin as above

The Wikipedia article for Phoenix also draws a clear etymological line:

In Greek mythology, Phoenix (Greek: Φοῖνιξ Phoinix, gen.: Φοίνικος), the eponym of Phoenicia, was a son of Agenor and Telephassa (or Argiope), brother of Cadmus, Cilix and Europa.

When Europa was carried off by Zeus, her three brothers were sent out by Agenor to find her, but the search was unsuccessful. Phoenix eventually settled in a country in Africa which he named Phoenicia after himself.

Did an ancient mythological bird and son of a goddess really name Phoenicia? No, but then neither did a pair of mythological twins who suckled from the teat of their mother wolf found Rome. Nevertheless, that's the mythological etymology. It's a bit of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the real world name get created out of the myth? Or did the mythological etymology come out of the name? In both of these ancient instances, we may, and probably will, never know.

  • Of course I got that far. You do know that words can have the same form and not be cognate? This may be the case for Agenor's son and the bird. I have amended the title to make it even clearer that the "phoenix" I am asking about is the name of the bird. Unfortunately the Wikipedia article on "Phoenix (mythology)" is of poor quality, containing statements such as "In ancient Greece and Rome, the bird, φοῖνιξ, was sometimes associated with the similar-sounding Phoenicia", although it does mention the purple-red dye.
    – user154974
    Jan 13, 2016 at 21:42