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Arctium lappa; Common Name: Burdock.

Is it simply a coincidence that 'Arctium,' meaning 'Bear,' the animal, sounds like 'Bur' in 'Burdock?' (viz., NOT bear-dock, but bur-dock).
The etymology does not seem to link them.

What I can see: 'Bear' comes from brown. 'Bur' comes from bristle.

The jump to Arctium is simply a coincidence that the bear happens to bristle, and so looks like the small bur.


From Etymonline:

common name of a kind of coarse, weedy plant, 1590s, from bur + dock (n.3).

bur (n.): "prickly seed vessel of some plants," c. 1300, burre, from a Scandinavian source (compare Danish borre, Swedish hard-borre, Old Norse burst "bristle"), from PIE *bhars- (see bristle (n.)). Transferred 1610s to "rough edge on metal," which might be the source of the sense "rough sound of the letter -r-" (see burr). Also the name given to various tools and appliances.


From Etymonline:

bear (n.): "large carnivorous or omnivorous mammal of the family Ursidae," Old English bera "a bear," from Proto-Germanic *bero, literally "the brown (one)" (source also of Old Norse björn, Middle Dutch bere, Dutch beer, Old High German bero, German Bär), usually said to be from PIE root *bher- (2) "bright; brown." There was perhaps a PIE *bheros "dark animal" (compare beaver (n.1) and Greek phrynos "toad," literally "the brown animal").


From Botanical:

The name of the genus, Arctium, is derived from the Greek arktos, a bear, in allusion to the roughness of the burs ...

The plant gets its name of 'Dock' from its large leaves; the 'Bur' is supposed to be a contraction of the French bourre, from the Latin burra, a lock of wool, such is often found entangled with it when sheep have passed by the growing plants.

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    The full OED says the initial syllable of burdock (a particular type of dock) is just the word bur, burr - defined by them as Any rough or prickly seed-vessel or flower-head of a plant (origin: identical or cognate with Danish borre bur, "burdock", Swedish borre "sea-urchin". No mention of bears or tangled wool there. Oct 14, 2020 at 11:23
  • Why the downvotes? Oct 14, 2020 at 14:25
  • Isn't Arctium from the Latin arction meaning "unknown plant?" I thought -ium indicated a borrowing from Latin.
    – Yorik
    Oct 14, 2020 at 20:11

2 Answers 2

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Is it simply a coincidence that 'Arctium,' meaning 'Bear,' the animal, sounds like 'Bur' in 'Burdock?' (viz., NOT bear-dock, but bur-dock).

Yes. Sound similarity is not a useful tool to figure out etymological connections between words. Bear and burdock are not cognates in English.

For instance, all of these words differ from bear in one vowel sound, but are otherwise unrelated etymologically to bear:

beer bore bur bar birr byre ber

Even the verb bear, meaning carry, is unrelated etymologically to the animal bear. The OED eventually traces the verb bear to:

the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit bhṛ-, ancient Greek ϕέρειν, classical Latin ferre, Early Irish beirid (3rd singular indicative), Armenian berem (1st singular indicative), Albanian bie (imperative singular bjer), all in the senses ‘to carry, to bring’, and also (with secondary senses) Welsh †beru to flow, Old Church Slavonic bĭrati to gather, Lithuanian berti to scatter.

So sound is insufficient to connect the etymology of two words. So is meaning.

Even if you could find a small bit of similar meaning between the words, that isn't sufficient for showing that the two words are cognates. For instance. island and isle look similar in form and mean similar things, but have completely different etymologies: island comes from Old English ig-land, and isle comes from the Latin insula. Word pairs like this are called false cognates, and they're textbook examples of how two similar words can form coincidentally without sharing a common root.

So if the dictionary is telling you that the two words are not related, you're going to need better evidence than sound or meaning similarity to show that they're related.

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Is it simply a coincidence that 'Arctium,' meaning 'Bear,' the animal, sounds like 'Bur' in 'Burdock?'

Yes.

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