After three months of neglect, Word Stories is coming back from the dead. Feeling inspired to resurrect my first-born after starting a new sideline project compiling my TEFL Leson plans and visiting the disturbingly interesting mummy exhibition at Assen’s Drents Museum, I’ve been looking into the word mummy.
Even though we use the same word for embalmed bodies as we do for our mothers, the two words are not at all related. The mummy we use for well-preserved cadavers actually comes from the Persian mumiya meaning ‘tar’ since the first mummies found were of a deep black colour, like tar. This transferred to Arabic as mumiyah and was used to refer to embalmed bodies. Mumiyah then entered Medieval Latin and then Middle English as mumia in around 1400 but the most widely-understood use of the term was actually as a medicine, since, gruesome as it seems now, between the 12th and the 17th century, pharmacists were doing a roaring trade in ground embalmed body powder. This miracle cure was used to treat everything from stomach ulcers to headaches and demand was so high that some disreputable salesmen took to digging up and grinding up any old body just to meet with supply.
Oddly enough, the penchant for mumia might have arisen from a simple linguistic misundrstanding. Remember that mumiya in Persian actually reffered to tar? In ancient times, it was the bitumen in tar that was a common miracle medicine, also prescribed for a wide range of ailments, such as arthritis or dysentry. Mumiya conveniently also referred to another black substance, used in the embalming process. This mumiya was not actually bitumen but it was used as an alternative when bitumen was in short supply. From there, it was just a few steps to the idea that it was the embalmed body itself and not the substance used to do the embalming, which would solve all your health problems.