This was originally written in reply to a claim here, now deleted, that Old English had tabooed its words for 'bear' and 'die'.
As the etymology in the Webster entry shows, the Anglo-Saxon word for 'bear' was simply bera. Though they also say OE bere. I don't know what they imagined the difference between AS and OE to be. (Oh wait, they use 'OE' for what the rest of us call Middle English.)
It is true that this was in origin a euphemism or replacement, but from the existence of related forms in German (Bär) and Scandinavian (the name Björn -- Tolkien's Beorn, by the way), it is clear the substitution took place in the ancestral Proto-Germanic language.
Webster mentions a possibly connexion with the Latin root fer- 'wild', as in feral, ferocious; but it is more likely to be from the root for 'brown', as grimulation has said.
The original Indo-European word for 'bear' was something like rkthos. (The consonant cluster presents a peculiar problem for IE reconstruction.) This became Greek árktos (as in Arctic), Celtic root arth- (as in Arthur, perhaps), Latin ursa (as in Ursa Major), and Sanskrit rksha- (as in the monster rakshasa).
These were all spoken in more southerly climes. The northern peoples replaced their words: the ancient Germanic people called the bear the Brown One, and the Slavs and Balts called it the Honey-Eater, med-ved' or diminutive meshka.
It is believed likely that these were replaced for taboo reasons. But the new words remained in place for thousands of years. A true taboo would require constant updating as the current word became too fixed. We have this turnover of taboo words in our repeated change of terms such as lavatory, Negro, mentally retarded, mortician. Some North American languages have indeed gone through several synonyms for taboo animals in the centuries they have been recorded.
As for 'die', well the actual word was lost from OE and restored from Norse (deyja
) in Middle English, but in the meantime we said steorfan
, which gives modern English starve
and is related to German sterben
'die'. They were plenty of words for death, killing, blood, and battle used in Old English, and written down: the poems are full of them. Beowulf
is thousands of lines of death.
The name Beowulf is literally 'bee-wolf', but may be another euphemism for our terrifying friend Bruin the Bear.