I recently confused a "basilica" with a "basilisk", with the former being a church building and the latter being a mythical snake-like creature.

The similarities of the two words made me curious of their origins. But the etymology of both words (from the Wiktionary links) say the same thing: Latin-basilica and Greek-basilike, meaning "royal".

What is the connection of this meaning with "mythical snake-like dragon with a deadly gaze"?

  • 3
    +1 for an unexpected commonality. BTW, don't confuse mosques with mosquitoes. Or burros with burritos.
    – rajah9
    Dec 10 '12 at 17:18

Etymonline is generally considered to be the more verbose and reliable reference for etymologies. Its entry for basilisk reads:

c.1300, from Latin basiliscus, from Greek basiliskos "little king," dim. of basileus "king" (see Basil); said by Pliny to have been so called because of a crest or spot on its head resembling a crown.

Basilica's entry reads:

1540s, from Latin basilica "building of a court of justice," and, by extension, church built on the plan of one, from Greek (stoa) basilike "royal (portal)," the portico of the archon basileus, the official who dispensed justice in Athens, from basileus "king" (see Basil). In Rome, applied specifically to the seven principal churches founded by Constantine.

Wikipedia's entries for basilisk and basilica confirm the royal connection that the two words share. The former includes an excerpt from the aforementioned Pliny's encyclopaedia published in ~79CE:

There is the same power also in the serpent called the basilisk. It is produced in the province of Cyrene, being not more than twelve fingers in length. It has a white spot on the head, strongly resembling a sort of a diadem.

  • 1
    Basilisks are also known as the kings of serpents (thus Harry Potter, even). Sep 18 '14 at 7:36
  • So the phonetic difference -- the /sk/ at the end -- comes from the Greek diminutive suffix. It frequently happens that the diminutive of a noun survives where its original doesn't, as in L apiculus > Fr abeille, Here they both came through, though in different ways. Jul 1 at 14:29

According to various dictionary sources, it appears to be so-called because it is described as having a crest or crown-like spot on its head. Hence the link to 'royal.'


Origin: 1250–1300; Middle English < Latin basiliscus < Greek basilískos princeling, basilisk, equivalent to basil ( eús ) king + -iskos diminutive suffix; allegedly so named from a crownlike white spot on its head

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