Darker Matters

November, 2019 Word Stories

Our last instalment of Word Stories, with its focus on divine attributes, was all goodness and light. Now, as the days of late autumn get rapidly shorter, we, too, find ourselves in gloomier territory, turning our attention to darker matters. Of course, most of us try to avoid chaos, pandemonium and bedlam whenever possible, but we hope this doesn’t discourage you from reading further: etymologically speaking, their stories are devilishly interesting.


In Greek mythology and in the famous opening chapters of Hesiod’s Theogony, Chaos is personified as the primordial god of primordial gods: the indefinite, shapeless cosmic matter from which Erebus, personification of darkness, and Nyx, personification of night, come to be. The Greek common noun existed before this sense was coined and was khaos (χάος), meaning a physical void, chasm or abyss of awe-inspiring proportions such as a deep gorge, gulf or ravine. A more distant etymology is uncertain, but an Ancient Greek verb khaskein (χάσκειν) exists, meaning “to gape, be wide open”.

From its origins in Greek mythology, the term chaos was transferred during the Middle Ages and Renaissance to Judeo-Christian texts and commentaries. It came to designate the primeval confusion occurring before God’s order, and the advent of human civilization and religious devotion.

In the modern, scientific and mathematical sense, chaos describes a complex deterministic system whose behaviour is prone to drastic modifications caused by slight modifications of the initial data (e.g. the weather). This sense is from the early 1960s (“The chaos condition becomes more accurately satisfied as n becomes large”, The Journal of Chemical Physics, 1960), whereas “chaos theory”—often borrowed by non-scientific discourse—dates from the late 1980s.

The adjective chaotic was irregularly formed around the start of the eighteenth century from chaos and -ic, with an inserted -t- influenced by other noun–adjective couples with an Ancient Greek origin: hypnose/hypnotic, eros/erotic, demos/demotic, etc.


The word pandemonium was introduced by the English poet John Milton (1608–1674) in his masterpiece Paradise Lost, which retells the episode of the Fall of Man from the Book of Genesis. The term was coined by Milton as a proper noun, Pandæmonium, designating the centre of Hell, where Satan and all his demons hold council. Pandæmonium is assembled from the following familiar elements:

  • The Greek combining form pan- “all” (from the neuter form of pas “all”), used in words like panorama, pandemic, pantheon

  • A Latinized spelling of the Greek noun daimōn (δαίμων) “angel, spirit, divinity” and, in later Christian mythology, “demon”

  • The Latin suffix -(i)um, here indicating an assembly or group, the equivalent of Greek ending -(i)on (see Athenaeum)