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<   No. 4094   2019-10-03   >

Comic #4094

1 Kyros: Kobold.
2 Lambert: Alvissa, you’re up. L.
2 Alvissa: Lich.
3 Lambert: Wait, that's how you pronounce it? I say “lich”.
3 Kyros: No, no, it’s “lich”.
4 Mordekai: You’re all wrong. “Lich”.
4 Dwalin: Nae, ’tis “luch”, laddie.
4 Draak: Draak say “lich”.

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"Lich" is one of those words that most people encounter primarily in written material, and never hear other people say until after they've read it. As such, people come up with different pronunciations. StackExchange's English Language and Usage section has a fairly recent question about the pronunciation. Interestingly, the first two comments question whether "lich" is even an English word, and the third comment says it is, but is "for all intents and purposes obsolete". It seems none of these commenters were even aware that "lich" has a newfound currency as the name of a type of undead monster in various works of fantasy fiction and fantasy gaming.

The comment about "lich" being obsolete is based on the fact that "lich" or "lic" or "lych" or "lyke", meaning "corpse", was indeed a word in Old English, current from about the 5th to 13th centuries. While "lich" itself passed away into relative obscurity for the next few centuries, its remnant lived on in compound words and phrases such as:

Although usage of "lich" in common English had died out, it was resurrected in the late 19th century in the horror and fantasy writing of Ambrose Bierce, who used the word to refer to a corpse in his 1891 The Death of Halpin Frayser. A few decades later H. P. Lovecraft used the word in The Thing on the Doorstep, written in 1933, published 1937. And so the word began to gain currency in American horror fiction writing, which is presumably where Gary Gygax picked it up when looking for the name of a powerful undead necromancer monster in the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons. The game went on to become highly influential, and the rest is history, with "lich" now a common term used to describe similar undead necromancers across fantasy literature, visual media, and video games.

But on pronunciation: It seems the most common pronunciation of "lich" is to rhyme with "itch". However, as can be seen from the variant spellings inherited from Old English, things are not quite so clear cut. Some people prefer to pronounce it as "lick", while others use the in-between guttural German "ch" sound (as in "Bach", or the Scottish "loch"). Yet other people use a long-i vowel sound, resulting in "like" or something that sounds like the first four letters of "lychee".

So in the above comic, even though they're all saying the same word, they're all pronouncing it differently.


Roger B. writes that game author Phil Masters tracked down the precise source of Gygax's inspiration for using "lich" as the name of an undead monster:

I traced back the stuff on the origins of the lich; the D&D use of the term comes from The Sword of the Sorcerer, by Gardner Fox (a legend in the sort of circles where he's legendary - okay, to be fair, he created the Flash and Hawkman), which starred Kothar the Barbarian, who bore no resemblance at all to Conan.

The story The Sword of the Sorcerer comes from the book Kothar - Barbarian Swordsman, published in 1969. You can read the story and see the use of "lich" at Google Books. Gardner Fox, by the way, also wrote a series of stories starring Crom the Barbarian, another barbarian character obviously not at all influenced by Conan. I guess he liked writing about barbarian swordsmen completely and legally not inspired by Conan.

How do we know Masters' research is correct? Because Gary Gygax himself has confirmed that The Sword of the Sorcerer was the inspiration for his use if the word "lich":

T. Foster: The D&D lich comes from the character Afgorkon in Gardner Fox's "Kothar" stories -- see this old post in which I quote that character's first appearance.

Gary Gygax: Lich: Right on in regards to Gardner Fox. Gar and his wife Linda were friends of mine.

- Gygaxian monsters discussion thread on Enworld.

A bit more about it here at Geek & Sundry.

So what I said is essentially correct, just filling in Gardner Fox as the specific one of those American pulp/horror/fantasy writers who happened to be the one that Gygax read. Presumably Fox himself got the term from his reading of previous literature tracing back to Lovecraft and/or Bierce.

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