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sar·coph·a·gus (sär-kŏfə-gəs)
n. pl. sar·coph·a·gi(-jī) or sar·coph·a·gus·es
A stone coffin, often inscribed or decorated with sculpture.

[Latin, from Greek sarkophagos, coffin, from (lithos) sarkophagos, a kind of stone that purportedly consumed the flesh of corpses laid in it, from sarkophagos, flesh-eating : sarx, sark-, flesh + -phagos, -phagous.]

Word History: Sarcophagus, our term for a stone coffin located above ground, has a macabre origin befitting a macabre thing. Its ultimate source is the Greek word sarkophagos, “eating flesh, carnivorous,” a compound derived from sarx, “flesh,” and phagein, “to eat.” Sarkophagos was also used in the phrase lithos (“stone”) sarkophagos to denote a kind of stone from which coffins were made in the ancient world. The Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder says that this stone was quarried near the town of Assos in the Troad and describes its remarkable properties as follows: “It is well known that the bodies of the dead placed in it will be completely consumed after forty days, except for the teeth.” The Greek term sarkophagos could also be used by itself as a noun to mean simply “coffin.” Greek sarkophagos was borrowed into Latin as sarcophagus and used in the phrase lapis (“stone”) sarcophagus to refer to the same stone as in Greek. In Latin, too, sarcophagus came to be used as a noun meaning “coffin made of any material.” The first known attestation of the word sarcophagus in English dates from 1601 and occurs in a translation of Pliny's description of the stone. Later, sarcophagus begins to be used in English with the meaning “stone coffin,” especially in descriptions of sarcophagi from antiquity.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2022 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices

    Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:

    Indo-European Roots

    Semitic Roots

    The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.