While checking the etymology of the English word corpse, wikitionary says it had been līċ in Old English. Wikitionary also gives /liːt͡ʃ/ as its pronunciation, which apparently is completely different from "corpse".

Wikitionary says

From earlier corse, from Old French cors, from Latin corpus (“body”). Displaced native Old English līċ

I can't seem to find anything else about this word on Google. Etymology Dictionary also seems to be of no help.

Why did "corpse" displace līċ?

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    Probably the French term was used in courts and medical contexts and finally replaced the more “vulgar” OE term.
    – user 66974
    Oct 28, 2020 at 8:52
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    Līċ still survives in lych-gate, now probably its only use, and apart from some gamers I doubt that people actually know that lych means "corpse". Many French terms came over with the Norman Conquest and filtered down from court to peasant.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 28, 2020 at 9:04
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    Answers to 'why' questions in word history are hard to confirm - they all sound like idle speculation and really can't be confirmed or falsified. There's no one with a motive that makes a choice to one over the other, you can only attempt an answer of 'what happened' or 'is this the case'.
    – Mitch
    Oct 28, 2020 at 15:23
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    It's actively used in fantasy literature and narration. See WP: lich.
    – J D
    Oct 28, 2020 at 20:47
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    Can the close voters please explain how this is "opinion-based" and "needs details and clarity"? I would be so much obliged. As far as I'm concerned, I fulfilled the site's requirements and my question conforms to them. I did my research and found nothing that was easily available on the internet. There are hundreds of questions on this site that don't even show a single sign of research but no one is going to close any of them. Please explain.
    – user387044
    Oct 29, 2020 at 11:01

2 Answers 2


What Happened?

Lich in Old and Middle English referred to bodies in general. In the OED's two definitions for lich, that body could be alive ("lich, n.," def. 1) or dead ("lich, n.," def. 2). That's important to understand because corpse could also refer to a living or dead body ("corpse, n.," def. 1 and 2).

Between Middle English and Early Modern English, two changes occurred:

  1. Lich dropped out of usage, except in specialized combinations like the lich-gate or the lich-house.
  2. Corpse increasingly pertained to a dead body, rather than to either a living or dead body.

When Did Lich Decline?

Corpse (in earlier forms like cors) was in Middle English by the 13th century, according to the Middle English Dictionary, and stays in the language from then on:

c1275 Ken.Serm.(LdMisc 471)216/55 : Mirre..defendet þet Cors þet is mide i smered þet no werm nel comme i hende.

Lich, in contrast, is swiftly disappearing by the 16th century, appearing primarily in printed editions of older manuscripts, like this (printed 1600 from a text dated to around 1350):

c1600(c1350) Alex.Maced.(Grv 60)195 : With likand legges lovely too seene..Lili-white was hur liche.

The usage may have stuck around in spoken language for much longer, but usages in print after this point are intentionally archaic, like this 19th century ballad:

1806 Sir Oluf in Jamieson Ballads I. 222 Three likes were ta'en frae the castle away.

Why does this replacement occur?

One guess is that speakers favored the more clinical, educated sound of the French-derived cors/corpse over the common use of lich. Such lexical substitution was common in the Middle English period due to the influence of England's Norman aristocracy (Wikipedia).

Another is that lich had an uphill battle because it looked the same as a very common word, like. The lists of forms for lich and like look rather alike; both could appear as lic, lich(e), lych(e), lyke, and like. They may have sounded the same too. So it's also possible that lich underwent a decline in usage compared to a similar-meaning word (corpse) in order to avoid confusion. At around the same time, corpse specialized to fill its current semantic niche.

  • 28
    As always, don’t forget to corpse and subscribe.
    – Jim
    Oct 28, 2020 at 17:18
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    @Jim: I'm sitting here trying not to laugh. Oct 29, 2020 at 8:38
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    Corroborating that last paragraph is the fact that the Dutch word for 'corpse' is still 'lijk', pronounced just like, well, 'like'.
    – Bakabaka
    Oct 29, 2020 at 17:16
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    Is there something to the fact that "lich" is like "like"? You also have "homo" as in "same/like" and "homo" as in "human" (though googling has failed to confirm that this is anything more than a coincidence either). Oct 29, 2020 at 21:08
  • Duch also retains the form lichaam `body' for the living body, google it.
    – alexis
    Nov 2, 2020 at 8:36

Certainly TaleisinMerlin's answer is weighty. Here's the addendum:


While certainly lich has been dropped from the vernacular, there is one particular language community in which its use is still strident, and that is the fantasy genre. My first encounter with lich(e) was as a child when I was introduced to it as a type of undead villan in one of Gary Gygax's modules in D&D. In fact as noted by WP:

In fantasy fiction, a lich (/ˈlɪtʃ/;1 from Old English līċ meaning "corpse") is a type of undead creature.

This is an excellent example of how a word whose etymology shows that it hasn't been in use for hundreds of years, can be resurrected (yes) and regain currency pursuant to the whims of a language community. Of course, sometimes that leads to questions regarding a term's phonology. See this off-topic ELU SE post: How to pronounce Lich. In this case, 'lich' is a revenant in both the literal and metaphorical sense!

  • @DecapitatedSoul Thanks for the encouragement! Your profile pic says it all. :D
    – J D
    Oct 29, 2020 at 15:15
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    Indeed. This has come up before.
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 29, 2020 at 15:19
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    @AndrewLeach Of all the possible people to chip in, you had to bring your surname into this, no?
    – Bakabaka
    Oct 29, 2020 at 17:15
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    @Bakabaka It's pronounced differently, and is connected to tanning leather, not morticiary :-)
    – Andrew Leach
    Oct 29, 2020 at 18:57