An 1897 illustration of a sculpture of an Amazon.
  • Hein Nouwens/Shutterstock
  • An 1897 illustration of a sculpture of an Amazon.

Before Dom put up this post yesterday, which ended with an woman pun, he wondered aloud in the newsroom whether the joke was politically problematic in some way—whether "Amazon woman" had some ethnicity/nationality notes he didn't want to sound.

Collectively, we knew the origins were Greek, but not the actual etymology. So if you're curious...

late 14c., from Greek Amazon (mostly in plural Amazones) "one of a race of female warriors in Scythia," probably from an unknown non-Indo-European word, possibly from an Iranian compound *ha-maz-an- "(one) fighting together" [Watkins], but in folk etymology long derived from a- "without" + mazos "breasts," hence the story that the Amazons cut or burned off one breast so they could draw bowstrings more efficiently.

A 2003 column by the folks who write "The Straight Dope" gets deep into the etymological and mythological weeds of the Amazons (who Carl Jung suggested were just a masculine expression of fear about the social subordination of women in Greece):

An alternative etymology rivaled the "breastless" one in popularity in ancient times, but is not so well known today: a- + maza ("without barley bread"). The idea here is that the Amazons, as barbaric nomads, did not sow fields as the civilized Greeks did, so they were condemned to eat meat instead of grain products. The evidence in favor of this one is no better than the other.

If the word didn't mean "breastless" and it didn't mean "breadless," what did it mean? The ancient Greeks and Romans offered many other etymologies, all speculative, suggesting that the "breastless" etymology just wasn't cutting it. In the last couple hundred years, there has been a revival in the cottage industry of making up new origins for the name. Indeed Amazon has had more proposed etymologies than any other word I know by far. Here's a selection of ancient and modern attempts:

Greek a-massein ("unapproachable"), a-mangion ("manless"), ama-hazo ("with honor"), ama-zoonais ("with belts [for cinching armor]"), ama-zoone ("with belts [for cinching dresses]"), ama-zoosai ("living together"), Amazo-nes ("daughters of [somebody named] Amazo"); Old Iranian hemeh-zen ("all women") or ha-mazan ("warrior"); Caucasian amaze ("youth"); Hebrew ammitz ("strong") or zouheh ("fallen woman"); Mongolian aeme-zaïne ("excellent woman"); Gothic magath ("virgin"); undifferentiated Germanic metze ("slut"); Sanskrit Uma-soona ("children of Uma [an Indian goddess]"); Armenian ama-zon ("children of the moon goddess"); Phoenician am-azon ("mother-lord"); or Slavic omuzhony ("masculine women").

Apparently, the Amazon river was named after some conquistador types had an encounter with women warriors—or, as some have suggested, guys with smooth faces and long hair. But variations on that story are as old and confusing as the Amazons themselves. In the 4th century B.C., a writer named Palaiphatos suggested the original Amazons might have also been men without beards, possibly Hittites. (Side trivia: The Hittites and the ancient Egyptians agreed on the first known extradition treaty, which was part of a larger peace treaty supposedly carved on a sliver tablet, then reproduced in stone and clay.)

But if you want to go straight to the source (or one of them), Wikiquote has some passages by Herodotus about first contact with the Amazons, when a group of Scythian warriors fought them, realized they were women, then set up camp nearby. The two groups eyed each other for awhile and began an uneasy, then enthusiastic, group-sex courtship:

113. Now the Amazons at midday used to scatter abroad either one by one or by two together, dispersing to a distance from one another to ease themselves; and the Scythians also having perceived this did the same thing: and one of the Scythians came near to one of those Amazons who were apart by themselves, and she did not repulse him but allowed him to lie with her: and she could not speak to him, for they did not understand one another's speech, but she made signs to him with her hand to come on the following day to the same place and to bring another with him, signifying to him that there should be two of them, and that she would bring another with her. The young man therefore, when he returned, reported this to the others; and on the next day he came himself to the place and also brought another, and he found the Amazon awaiting him with another in her company. Then hearing this the rest of the young men also in their turn tamed for themselves the remainder of the Amazons;

114, and after this they joined their camps and lived together, each man having for his wife her with whom he had had dealings at first...

I'm not sure the Amazons would've appreciated the verbs "tamed" and "having," but otherwise it's a sweet make-love-not-war kind of story.