A Gryphon Newsletter

Volume 2, Number 1, Winter 2002


or, In the Days of my Griffinage

Michael D. Winkle

It is commonly accepted that the word "griffin" or "gryphon" comes from the Greek word gryps or grypos, "to seize or grip." Those of you who have studied the lion-eagles elsewhere are probably aware of the myriad spellings of the word, some of which are:

Griffun, gryffoune, gryffown, greffon, gryffon

griffen, girphinne, grephoun, grephyne, griffion

receiving instruction in matters philologicalTo say nothing of the Old French gripon, the Italian grifone, and the Latin gryphus. What you may not know is that the name "griffin", "gryphon", etc., has been subsumed and altered in many ways over the centuries, often forming the roots of words that have no conceivable connection with the furred and feathered beasties.

For instance, according to that massive linguistic effort, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED for short), the term "griff", in the dialect of northern England (specifically Yorkshire), means "a deep narrow valley or chasm." Like most entries in the OED, the definition is accompanied by quotes. One from a book called Moorland Par. reads "One of the small tributary becks . . . comes into the open air again in a wild little griff." Beck, in turn, means a swiftly running stream, usually with steep banks.

This version of the word is also spelled "grift", from the Dutch, meaning "a channel shaped out by water for itself," which sounds like erosion to me. Fortunately, the gryphons' name has nothing to do with "griff", "grift" or "grifter" as used in U.S. slang, that having come from "graft" and "grafters" -- people who make money by dishonest means, usually through political or business influence. Gryphons may like gold and treasures, but they are quite straightforward about gaining it -- by fighting the one-eyed Arimaspi!

"Griff" can simply mean "a claw", which gryphons certainly have. I don't know how much mental suffering or pain they go through, but "griff" once also meant "grief". In nineteenth century Louisiana, "griff", "griffo", or "griffon" referred to a person of mixed race in a surprisingly specific ratio: one-quarter white and three-quarters black. In weaving, a griff is "a frame composed of horizontal bars employed in pattern weaving." The origins of these terms are unknown.

"Griffe" in architecture is a claw-shaped carving at the base of a column, no doubt related to the paw- and claw-shaped terminations of fancy table legs (there's a word for those, too, but I don't remember it offhand).

"Griffin" in English slang can mean a signal or tip. In Cassell's Saturday Journal for January 1889, we find the line "Plank yourself at the corner to give the griffin if you hear or see owt." Nearly a century later, in F. Shaw's Lern Yerself Scouse (1966), there is the line "Let's give de fellers de griffin."

I wonder if "giving the griffin" is like "flipping the bird?" Better not to inquire too closely.

Anyway, this version of "griffin" is related to "get the straight griff," which means to receive reliable news or a trustworthy tip. This term may still be in use, for it appears in a book published as late as 1968, J. Wainwright's The Edge of Extinction: "It's griff, guv. The real thing." On the other hand, among the English of old-time India, according to an 1829 Bengalese dictionary, "to griff" means to fool someone: "He deem'd it no sin/To griff a heedless friend, -- plain English, -- take him in."

"Griffade" is a term used in falconry. It means "a sudden seizure with the claws." Oh, I'd hate to get a sharp griffade to the head!

In 18th century Ireland "griffaun" referred to a large hoe used to cut up turf. It can be used as a verb, "to griffaun". The OED quotes the Evening News of July 25, 1885: "William struck Tom Sheehan on the head with the griffaun." An odd image, if you were only familiar with the traditional griffin.

Getting closer to the traditional beast, "griffin" can mean "a grim-looking or extremely vigilant guardian," like a dragon. I didn't see it in the OED, but I'm sure I've seen old quotes which indicated that "griffin" sometimes meant any creature with attributes taken from two or more different animals -- what would more correctly be called a chimera.

You may know of the Brussels griffon, a breed of coarse-haired terrier-like dog, but in the fifteenth century the greyhound was known as the "grifhound" or "grefhound". Say -- wolfhounds were bred to fight wolves. Imagine a dog bred to fight gryphons! It'd have to be a mighty big dog, though . . .

"Obsolete" and "rare" is the use of the name "Griffon" to mean "A Greek," according to the OED, but that weighty tome gives several quotes on the matter, the most recent being from 1844: "Greeks . . . who are called Griffons wherever Romance is spoken," writes Sir F. Palgrave.

"Griffonage" comes from the French griffonner, "to write badly, scrawl." Well, it's hard to write well when holding a pen with those long talons!

"Griffin" and its derivatives can have suffixes, like more mundane words. "Griffinesque" means "of the style of a griffin." See? I knew the bird-beasts had style. The OED quotes Lord Lytton: "Blanche had just one of those faces that . . . might become gryphonesque." Lucky woman!

Speaking of women, "griffiness" means a female griffin. I used this word in some stories, but it began to sound sexist, like "aviatrix" instead of just "aviator". I still like the sound of the word, though. Griffiness.

"Griffinish" means "characteristic of a griffin." "Griffinism" means "griffinish nature or characteristics." Ruskin's Modern Painters says: "The honest imagination gains everything: it has griffinism, and grace, and usefulness, all at once." Why, I thought griffins were already graceful and useful!

The British in India, however, got the most mileage out of new versions of "griffin". "Griffin" in 18th and 19th century India meant a European, usually a young English soldier, newly arrived in India. If you're totally new to something, you're "a perfect griffin," "an unfledged griffin," "an utter griffin." But nobody's perfect . . .

This leads to some marvelous definitions. "Griffinage" means "the state of being a 'griffin'," as does "griffinhood" and "griffinship". "Griffish" or "griffinish" means to be like a griffin, that is, inexperienced. And this leads to a nice long word, "griffinishness": "We were afraid of eliciting some remark on our griffinishness, if we gave utterance to such a reflection," it says in Benares Magazine for 1850. (G. P. Sanderson's 1878 book Wild Beasts of India has a chapter entitled "In the Days of our Griffinage," just in case you were wondering where I got the title for this article from.)

I have written several stories and novels (mostly unpublished) about gryphons and werewolves. I once started a tale of a were-gryphon, but it petered out years ago. I may have to give it another shot, though, reading all these quotes about people's griffinhoods, griffinages, and griffinships. "What fun!" as Alice's Gryphon says.

Most of the quotes above come from:

Simpson, J. A., et al.. Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (Oxford University Press, 1989 [1924]), Volume VI, pp. 838-839.

Other People's Griffinage

Go to enough cons and you'll see some amazing costumes, some of which have been literally years in the making. Here are a couple of fellows who have taken "the state of being a griffin" quite seriously!

See Brad Reising, AKA Case Ace Gryphon (and gryphonian buddy Gilda): Case Ace Gryphon!

And feast your eyes on a truly fantastic creation, Legend, the Gryphon Bard, painstakingly crafted by Charlie Kellner!

Fantasy World Project

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Make sure to visit James Scott Spaid's amazing

Gryphon Pages!

There's Incredible Gryphon Art at:

Dee Dreslough's Art Gallery - free art for your pages!