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Chinchillax


Fixation on death aside, this is lovely —Soge, accidentally describing my entire life

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Dec
15th
2014

Investigating where the term "alicorn" came from. · 6:36am Dec 15th, 2014

What do you call a unicorn with wings? We refer to them as alicorns now, but where did we get that word from anyway? The show staff themselves didn’t know what to call these things, sometimes referring to them as pegacorns.

The debate over what to call these creatures finally ended with Season 3 Episode 5 when the show finally used the term “Alicorn.” But the fandom had been using the term for a while before the show adopted it. But where did we get it from?

Since at least the 1500s, Alicorn meant "the horn of a unicorn." But when did we add a second meaning to the word to refer to a winged unicorn?

Google trends only shows this word being searched for mostly after the show came out. And searching the corpus of web English reveals the only time this term seems to pop up is in a My Little Pony context.

The fact that a winged unicorn is an alicorn seems to be common knowledge for some. The comments for this deviantart piece make it seem like this is just a term some people know. "I read it in a German dictionary for all sort of fantasy creatures." And this blog post from only 3 months after the start of the show refers to winged unicorns as alicorns.

This wiki for a DnD like roleplaying group in 2008 describes alicorns as "a winged horse-like being, usually with a single horn protruding from its head." Older still is this image gallery from 2003 of alicorns.

Due to those posts, it appears that there was no one person who popularized the term, but that it was common knowledge for a winged unicorn to be an alicorn and the MLP fandom was the first place where the idea really needed its own word to attach itself to.

The first known instance of the term "Alicorn" meaning a winged unicorn dates back to a fantasy novel by Piers Anthony all the way back in 1984.
(By the way, Piers Anthony is a cool guy, check out this story about him at 8 minutes in to this This American Life Episode)

As far as I can tell, this is where it all began:

The strange thing is that even Piers Anthony doesn't know where the term came from.

When asked how he came up with the term, he answered, “I saw fantasy statuettes in an ad, and one was of a winged unicorn, titled an alicorn, so I figured that was the name and used it. I have not been able to verify it elsewhere.”

Odder still are the Google N-Gram results of looking up "Alicorn." Google N-Grams are Google's method of searching millions of books at once.
Books containing Alicorn seem to be describing a person with the last name of "Alicorn" , the unicorn horn , or oddly enough, an animal called an alicorn. Yeah... I got no idea what's happening there.

In short, we don't know when the term for a unicorn's horn — an alicorn —  jumped ship to also referring to a winged unicorn, but we can be sure it was Piers Anthony's book that either coined the term or popularized it enough to be common knowledge among some circles by the time the show came out.

For more information, hit up this fascinating blog post by Pikmanipulator.

Comments ( 13 )

I guess it's just one of those things that, back in the day, nobody cared enough to document but still circulated around in the culture just enough to be known.

2654405

I feel it's similar to the guy that is credited as coining the word "selfie." He thinks someone else made up the word, but because he was the first one to write it down (in a forum post no less), he gets the official credit.

Piers Anthony doesn't think he coined the term, but he wrote it down first as far as I can tell.

Alicorn is the mythical substance of UnicornHorn. Sometime in the postwar world, someone realized that alicorn also means WingHorn in Latin, so it started to popup for WingHornHorses with horns made of Alicorn.

I myself have wondered exactly this in the past, but couldn't find a damn thing. I didn't look nearly as far into it as you did though. Thanks for assuaging my curiousity.

2654567
You're welcome!

2654515
Yep! It is interesting to see when and how the transition took place though, and learning the etymology of the word.

Interestingly enough, the etymology of "unicorn" itself is also weird; in Italian, for example, another name for unicorn is "liocorno"; given that as a fantastic beast it was made up of a bunch of different animals glued together (deer's hooves, lion's mane or tail (I think), etc etc) it's possible someone substituted the "lio" for lion with the "ali" for wings.

(don't mind me, I'm just skipping back through your blog because you write some cool stuff :) )

The term alicorn to describe a winged unicorn has been in use in the Furry fandom for a long time, also probably following Piers Anthony's usage of the word. (One of the IRC servers of Furnet, in fact, is alicorn.furnet.org, and that's been in use for at least ten years.) I had always assumed that the term simply crossed over from the Furry fandom to the Brony fandom.

I've often wondered if the writers made a deliberate decision to use the term 'alicorn' in "Magic Duel", or if they absorbed it from the fandom without realising it. It still feels weird to hear it being thrown around casually now by characters. :)

2858058
Never feel sorry for commenting! :pinkiehappy:
I love comments.

:pinkiegasp: And I did not know about that IRC channel. Thank you!
For future reference, would you say that 2005 is when it started?

I had the same reaction when I saw that episode. Suddenly this fandom only term was getting official status. It was fascinating.

2858335 - I think it the server started around 2005 (possibly earlier), but I remember the term alicorn being in use before that. I suspect its usage in Furry could even go back to the mid 90s (as people were roleplaying on MUCKs even back then), although that's just a guess on my part.

2859117

The mid 90s? :pinkiegasp:

Yeah, that is definitely the oldest online usage of the term I've ever heard. And the only bridge I have between Piers Anthony's novel and a 2003 image gallery.

I don't suppose there's some giant archive transcription of all of those MUCK roleplays is there?
I would love a screenshot or something of when it was used.

2860149 - I don't have any records from FurryMUCK (roleplay logs wouldn't be kept or published anyway), but here's the earliest reference to it I can find from the Furry fandom, in a Usenet post from 14th July 1993, discussing a Furry fantasy creature calendar:

>>>BTW -- Are "Alicorns" an AD&D phenomenon? I think I heard that "alicorns" as
>>>"winged unicorns" were introduced in some book series (Xanth?) some time ago,
>>>even though the "proper" meaning of the word is for a unicorn's horn.

Nope - "alacorns" meaning "wing-horns" was derived from "alate unicorns"
by a friend of mine by the name of Charlie Luce who didn't particularly
care for "pegacorn", the most common alternate at the time. This back in
the days of original D&D before either AD&D or, I believe, Xanth. As it
filled a lack, the term was adopted by a lot of people, despite the
medieval term of the same sound but different derivation and slightly
different spelling.

Otherwise known as "a horse with all the options". :->

2860281

Thank you so much!
I now have another piece to this puzzle. :twilightsmile:

It just sounds like "all in one" and "unicorn" mushed together.

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