The Grammarphobia Blog

Siren songs

Q: Why do sirens draw you towards danger in Homer’s Odyssey, but warn you away from danger in real life?

A: What an interesting question! We’re talking about two different kinds of sirens here, but they’re etymologically connected.

First come the fabled creatures known as “sirens.”

These are defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “monsters, part woman, part bird, who were supposed to lure sailors to destruction by their enchanting singing.”

Homer invented these monsters, or at least he was the first to mention “sirens” in writing. In his Odyssey, he called them by the Greek plural seirens.

From Greek, the creature moved into Latin (siren, later sirena) and on into Old French (sereine), from which it was borrowed into English in the 14th century.

But the earliest writers to use the term didn’t always have the Homeric siren in mind. 

For example, Chaucer, in The Romaunt of the Rose (circa 1366), confused “siren” with “mermaid,” the legendary creature that’s part woman, part fish:

“Though we mermaydens clepe hem here … Men clepen hem sereyns in Fraunce” (“Though we call them mermaids here … Men call them sirens in France”).

And some early sources, like the 14th-century Wycliffe Bible, thought a “siren” was a flying snake.

In translating the Latin for “siren,” Wycliffe versions used the expressions “wengid edderes” (winged adders) and “fliynge serpentis” (flying serpents).

But the classical “siren”—part woman, part bird—was pretty scary too.

In 1387, John de Trevisa translated a Latin text into Middle English and described “Sirenes, that were half maydens, half foules, and hadde wynges and clawes.”

Some sirens, like Homer’s, used their beautiful voices to lure ships onto treacherous rocks. Others lulled sailors to sleep and then tore them to pieces. Not a pretty picture!

But in the 16th century, the OED says, the word “siren” acquired another, less horrifying meaning: one who “sings sweetly, charms, allures, or deceives, like the Sirens.”

Now on to the more ear-splitting kind of siren.

In the early 19th century, the French physicist Charles Cagniard de la Tour invented an instrument that could produce musical tones and measure their frequencies.

Since it could emit sounds under water, Cagniard called it a “siren,” after the legendary beings.

The same name was adopted later in the 19th century for the noisier devices we associate with the word.

Today these noisemakers herald the coming of fire engines, ambulances, police cars, civil defense alerts, and so on.

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