c. 1600, "type of stone used by the ancients for making coffins," from Latin sarcophagus, from Greek sarkophagos (lithos) "limestone used for coffins;" the adjective means "flesh-eating," a reference to the supposed action of this type of limestone (quarried near Assos in Troas, hence the Latin lapis Assius) in quickly decomposing bodies.
It is a compound of sarx (genitive sarkos) "flesh" (see sarcasm) + phagein "to eat" (from PIE root *bhag- "to share out, apportion; to get a share"). Related: Sarcophagal.
The "stone" sense was the earliest in English; the meaning "stone coffin," often one with inscriptions or decorative carvings is by 1705. The Latin word, shortened in Vulgar Latin to *sarcus, is the source of French cercueil, German Sarg "coffin," Dutch zerk "tombstone."
plural of sarcophagus (q.v.).
Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to share out, apportion; to get a share."
It forms all or part of: aphagia; Bhagavad-Gita; baksheesh; esophagus; nebbish; pagoda; -phage; phago-; -phagous; porgy; sarcophagus.
It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit bhajati "assigns, allots, apportions, enjoys, loves," bhagah "allotter, distributor, master, lord," bhaksati "eats, drinks, enjoys;" Persian bakhshidan "to give;" Greek phagein "to eat," literally "to have a share of food;" Old Church Slavonic bogatu "rich."
"work beyond a person's strength, excessive labor," 1819; see overwork (v.). Middle English ofer-werc, Old English ofer-geweorc (West Saxon) meant "a superstructure, a work raised over something," hence "sarcophagus, tomb."
early 14c., "chest or box for valuables," from Old French cofin "sarcophagus," earlier "basket, coffer" (12c., Modern French coffin), from Latin cophinus "basket, hamper" (source of Italian cofano, Spanish cuebano "basket"), from Greek kophinos "a basket," which is of uncertain origin.
Funereal sense "chest or box in which the dead human body is placed for burial" is from 1520s; before that the main secondary sense in English was "pie crust, a mold or casing of pastry for a pie" (late 14c.). Meaning "vehicle regarded as unsafe" is from 1830s. Coffin nail "cigarette" is slang from 1880; nail in (one's) coffin "thing that hastens or contributes to one's death" is by 1792.