Dead Names, Dead Dog: Miskatonic Misconceptions

Way back in 1975, “Simon” wrote the following:

Lovecraft’s mythos deals with what are known as *chthonic dieties, that is, underworld gods and goddesses, much like the Leviathan of the Old Testament. The pronunciation of chthonic is ‘katonic’, which explains Lovecraft’s famous Miskatonic River and Miskatonic University, not to mention the chief diety of his pantheon, Cthulhu…

It’s just a throwaway reference in the middle of the Necronomicon’s introduction, but in Dead Names, “Simon” is quite incensed about people ignoring it:

the mythical Lovecraftian university, Miskatonic, is a very clever play on words that has gone unnoticed— or denied — by Lovecraft scholars and critics of the Necronomicon alike.

Going on to cite the Oxford English Dictionary as to a pronunciation of “katonic” for the word (which we’ll add to the errata), “Simon” pounds his case home:

Critics point out that “miskatonic” is simply an imaginary American Indian word, but they miss the point. It is certainly an imaginary Indian word, since Lovecraft lived in Rhode Island, which is a state full of towns and rivers with similar-sounding names; but it is also a play on the word “chthonic,” with the negative prefix mis (as in mistake, misperception) resulting in “Miskatonic,” which can only mean an evil, chthonic force, like—for instance – Cthulhu. Thus, Miskatonic was a clever and meaningful pun that has sadly gone unnoticed by Lovecraft’s own defenders.

Note: If you want recognition by scholars for a discovery, don’t bury it in an introduction to a likely-hoaxed work you’re publishing under a pseudonym. It’s not a great way to get cited.

Nonetheless, why have I, and countless other Lovecraft scholars, denied the validity of Simon’s assertion? Well, we have a quality that sets us apart from him:
We’ve actually taken the time to read what Lovecraft wrote beyond his fiction.

Here’s a letter from Lovecraft to his friend August Derleth (Selected Letters III, page 432):

…About “Arkham” and “Kingsport” – bless my soul! but I thought I’d told you about all of them years ago! They are typical but imaginary places – like the river “Miskatonic”, whose name is simply a jumble of Algonquin roots. Vaguely, “Arkham” corresponds with Salem…

“Simon” told me that it was quite possible that Lovecraft was having some fun with Derleth. This can hardly be the case. You’d think if he had the slightest such tendency to do so, we wouldn’t have ended up with letter after letter in which he tells people the Necronomicon is false.

For a man who is taken by some to be an authority on Lovecraft, “Simon’s” insistence on his interpretation of “Miskatonic” leaves him lost in the current.

Published in: on July 13, 2006 at 10:38 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I had not read what Simon or Lovecraft had written about the word Miskatonic before now. I must admit that when I read the the word Miskatonic in Lovecraft’s stories I thought of Cthulhu and “Chthonic” forces. Curious jumbled roots…

  2. The problem is–I’m just entertaining “Simon’s” idea here for a second–if you add a negative “mis-” to “chthonic” then you get the opposite, as in “un-dark-and-evil” also known as “light and good.” Lovecraft wasn’t prone to those sort of logical errors, and when he wanted to redouble words he just came out and did so without making much of a fuss about it.

    While we’re at it, we could derive “Arkham” from Genesis and Exodus, the ARK of the covenant plus Noah’s son HAM, credited the forefather of the darker races. Or is it a clever reference to Markheim? Or Noah’s Ark and the forbidden meat, pork? Or maybe it’s a corruption of Erik’s Hamlet, a reference albeit roundabout to Erik the Red’s son Leif’s landing in New England? OK I’m done.

  3. Interestingly enough, a near-anagram of Miskatonic exists in a Graeco-Egyptian spell inscription found near Antinoöpolis in Egypt, from the c. 4th century CE. In part of the voces magicae in the spell text, the word “MISONKTAIK” occurs. While it is virtually certain that Lovecraft couldn’t have known about this, nonetheless the coincidence is rather amusing!

    If you’d like specific references to this, let me know…

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