Word of the Month: Sarcophagus


David Zapatka

Just having toured the Valley of the Kings and Queens in Luxor, Egypt, my mind is filled with hieroglyphic and sarcophagus images. Touring the tombs of Tutankhamun, Seti 1, Seti 2, Ramses 2 and Nefertari, I was astounded by the beauty, artistry, vibrant colors, carvings and intricate work done by these ancient people. Being allowed to get as close as we were to these ancient treasures was completely unexpected. Several sarcophagi including that of King Tut were in reach of where we stood. Even King Tut’s mummified body was no more than a few feet away. King Tut’s linen-wrapped mummy was removed from its golden sarcophagus to a climate-controlled glass box in 2007.

Sarcophagus – noun sar·coph·a·gus |  sär-ˈkä-fə-gəs  a stone coffin

History and etymology: borrowed from Latin, after lapis sarcophagus “kind of stone with caustic properties used for coffins,” partial translation of Greek líthos sarkóphagos, literally, “flesh-eating stone”; sarkóphagos from sarko- sarco- + -phagos phagous.

First known use of the word sarcophagus: 1619.

The main purpose of these containers was the protection of the corpse from scavenging animals and tomb robbers. They also served an important religious role through their shape and decoration, which changed and developed over the whole of ancient Egyptian history.

Body-eating coffins might sound like the stuff of horror films but “flesh-eating stone” does play a role in the etymology of sarcophagus. That creepy-sounding phrase is a literal translation of “sarkophagos,” the Greek word that underlies our English term. It’s not clear whether the Romans truly believed that a certain type of limestone from the region around Troy would dissolve flesh (and thus was desirable for making coffins). That assertion came from Roman scholar Pliny the Elder but he also reported such phenomena as dog-headed people and elephants who wrote Greek. But there’s no doubt that the ancient Greek word for the limestone, “sarkophagos,” was formed by combining sark-, meaning “flesh,” with a derivative of “phagein,” a verb meaning “to eat.”

What is the difference between a tomb and a sarcophagus? A tomb is a small building (or vault) for the remains of the dead, with walls, a roof and a door.

Examples of sarcophagus used in a sentence:

Now, almost 7,500 people have signed a change.org petition requesting to drink the sewage liquid from the ancient sarcophagus. — Laura Yan, Popular Mechanics, “What’s Inside This 2,000-Year-Old Mystery Sarcophagus?” 21 July 2018

Mystery surrounded the sarcophagus since its discovery was announced last month. — James Rogers, Fox News, “’Cursed’ ancient Egyptian sarcophagus reveals its grisly secrets,” 21 August 2018.

The ancient sarcophagus was found by local authorities during standard archaeological excavations conducted before the construction of a new building on Al-Karmili Street. — Jason Daley, Smithsonian, “Ptolemic-Era Black Granite Sarcophagus Discovered in Alexandria,” 5 July 2018.

What thoughts might you have about these ancient coffins? Please submit your experiences, any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected].