What do you call a unicorn with wings? We refer to them as alicorns now, but where did we get that word from anyway? The show staff themselves didn’t know what to call these things. They sometimes referred to them as pegacorns .
The debate over what to call these creatures finally ended with Season 3 Episode 5 when the show finally used the term “Alicorn.” But the fandom had been using the term for a while and the show finally adopted it. But where did we get it from?
Searching the corpus of web English reveals the only time this term seems to pop up is in a my little pony context.
Wikipedia tells us that this is an alicorn:
An alicorn is just the term for the horn of a unicorn. That picture is what was presented to King Ferdinand I as a unicorn horn. It’s actually a Narwhal tusk.
The fact that a winged unicorn is an alicorn seems to be just common knowledge for some. The comments for this deviantart piece make it seem like this is just a term some people know. “I read it in a German dictionary for all sort of fantasy creatures”. And this blog post from only 3 months after the start of the show refers to winged unicorns as alicorns.
This wiki for a DnD like roleplaying group in 2008 describes alicorns as “a winged horse-like being, usually with a single horn protruding from its head.” Older still is this image gallery from 2003 of alicorns.
Due to those posts, it appears that there was no one person who popularized the term, but that it was just common knowledge for a winged unicorn to be an alicorn and the MLP fandom was the first place where the idea really needed it’s own word to attach itself to. I’m just guessing here, but I’m assuming it was those who viewed —Alicorn is a winged unicorn, end of story— were the people who made the term popular.
But how did we go from an Alicorn meaning a unicorn horn, to a winged unicorn?
It all dates from a Fantasy Novel by Piers Anthony. (By the way, Piers Anthony is a cool guy, check out this story about him at 8 minutes in to this This American Life Episode) Piers Anthony described a winged Pegasus as an Alicorn in his novel Bearing an Hourglass back in 1984.
The strange thing is that even Piers Anthony doesn’t know where the term came from.
When asked how he came up with the term, he answered, “I saw fantasy statuettes in an ad, and one was of a winged unicorn, titled an alicorn, so I figured that was the name and used it. I have not been able to verify it elsewhere.”
Odder still are the Google N-Gram results of looking up “Alicorn.” Google N-Grams are Google’s method of searching millions of books at once.
Books containing Alicorn seem to be describing a person with the last name of “Alicorn” , the unicorn horn , or oddly enough, an animal called an alicorn. Yeah… I got no idea what’s happening there.
In short, we don’t know when the term for a Unicorn’s horn — an Alicorn— jumped ship to also referring to a winged unicorn, but we can be sure it was Piers Anthony’s book that either coined the term or popularized it enough to be common knowledge among some circles by the time the show came out.