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Hyperborean

Pronounced /haɪpəˈbɔəriːən/Help with pronunciation

Since today we have a pretty firm hold on geography and climate, we find it a little strange to learn that the ancient Greeks believed a race of people lived at the northern limits of the world, beyond the place from which the god Boreas sent his icy blasts. According to the poet Pindar, they occupied an earthly paradise, a land of sunshine and plenty. They were untouched by old age or conflict or disease, spending their days in song and dance and in worshipping their god Apollo, who came every winter to visit them.

Hence hyperborean, from the Greek words huper, beyond, plus boreas, the north wind. It has been used in English for pretty much the same idea — of a people who live in the extreme north — though without the merrymaking, frolicking or warmth. We know too well that the far north contains no earthly paradise but only ice, snow, gales and bone-freezing temperatures. Hence appearances of the word like this, from D P Thompson (better known for The Green Mountain Boys, about Vermont’s struggle for independence), in Gaut Gurley, 1857:

It was the second week in May; and spring, delightful spring, sweet herald of happiness to all the living creatures that have undergone the almost literal imprisonment of one of the long and dreary winters of our hyperborean clime, was beginning to sprinkle the green glories of approaching summer over the reanimated wilderness.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 26 Jul. 2008

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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-hyp2.htm
Last modified: 26 July 2008.