hieroglyph /haɪərəʊˈglɪf/

Eight hundred kilometers  south of the Mediterranean and situated on the east bank of the river Nile was the birthplace of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes, which appears to have been inhabited from at least 3200 BC. Today, the place is called Luxor after the Luxor Temple that was built there, founded in 1400 BC. In contrast, the Hotel Luxor in Las Vegas was opened in 1993 after 12 years of construction.

Las Vegas Luxor

Unlike its ancient counterpart, the Vegas Luxor has gaming tables, comedian Carrot Top, magician Criss Angel, a $10 per day “resort fee” for two bottles of water and a newspaper, and a $5 charge if you want to take your money out of your account. Both have wall adorned with hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs are ancient Egyptian symbols that began life as pictures used to represent things but became associated with sounds instead. For example, the hieroglyph of an owl represents the sound /m/ and not “owl.”

Owl for "m"

A hieroglyph is defined by the OED as a;

…figure of some object, as a tree, animal, etc., standing for a word (or, afterwards, in some cases, a syllable or sound), and forming an element of a species of writing found on ancient Egyptian monuments and records; thence extended to such figures similarly used in the writing of other races. (OED, Vol. ??, p.???)

This move from picture to sound was inevitable because a completely pictorial writing system is pretty much untenable. Imagine having to create a picture for every word in, say, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And how would you write these pictograms down? The inevitable direction for a writing system is to have a small number of elements (letters) that stand for sounds.

The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek adjective ἱερογλυφικος, which in turn is composed of the elements ἱερός = sacred and γλυφῄ = carving. This became hieroglyphicus in late Latin, and was then realized as hiéroglyphique in French. Finally, by the magic of back-formation, the French word became hieroglyph.

It’s interesting to note that hieroglyph is a noun and refers to a symbol whereas hieroglyphic is both an adjective and a noun, which leads to hieroglyph and hieroglyphic being used interchangeably to refer to the actual symbols.

As a noun, hieroglyphic appears in 1596 in Henoch Clapham’s A briefe of the Bibles historie drawne into English poesy where he says “Commending onely vnto them Hierogliphiks, or holy preaching signes.”

Two years later in 1598, the use of hieroglyph as a noun is found in John Florio’s A worlde of wordes, or most copious and exact dictionarie in Italian and English where he offers the definition “Geroglifico, a gieroglife, mysticall or enigmaticall letters or cyfers vsed among the Egyptians.”

Because hieroglyphs have an enigmatic, mysterious quality to them, the word began to be used figuratively to refer to something with hidden meaning or that was generally symbolic:

Hieroglyphick Marks (in Palmestry), those winding Lines and Wrinkles in the Hand, by which the Professours of that vain Science pretend to foretell strange Things. (Phillips, 1706)

By 1734, the word was to describe any sort of writing that was difficult to decipher. In The lives of F. North, Sir D. North, and J. North Roger North wrote, “Petitions signed with numberless hands and frightful hieroglyphics.”

An expert in hieroglyphs is called a hieroglyphist, (not a *hieroglyphicist. The latter only scores 800 ghits whereas the former yields over 5,500 hits. And someone who writes hieroglyphically is called a hieroglypher.


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