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Pronounced /sɑːˈkɒfəɡəs/Help with pronunciation

A sarcophagus has traditionally been a stone coffin, typically adorned with a sculpture or inscription, which is particularly associated with the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Rome and Greece. These days, the materials vary:

Kim Jong-il’s bier was placed in the mausoleum yesterday where the embalmed body of founding father Kim II-sung is displayed in a glass sarcophagus.

The Irish Times, 21 Dec. 2011.

This sounds innocuous enough until you start to explore its word origins, when it takes on the aspect of a third-rate horror story. It is from Greek sark–, flesh, plus –phagos, eating. Flesh-eating stone?

The first reference in English to the word is from a translation of the works of the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, who said that the Greeks believed that a type of limestone quarried from an area near Troy would dissolve flesh and so was suitable for making coffins. Pliny is not the most reliable of reporters (he also mentioned dog-headed people and elephants who wrote Greek) and it’s more probable that the Greek name was a figurative reference to the speed by which the bodies of those interred in porous limestone coffins decayed to bones.

Limestone has continued to be a favoured material:

The coffin was discovered inside a much larger limestone sarcophagus during a second excavation of the site in August 2013, one year after the remains of Richard III were unearthed.

The Daily Telegraph (London), 2 Mar. 2015.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 11 Nov. 2000
Last updated: 9 Mar. 2015

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-sar1.htm
Last modified: 9 March 2015.