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The Greek word νύμφη has the primary meaning of "nubile young woman; bride, young wife" and is not associated with deities in particular. It refers to young women at the peak of sexual attractiveness, contrasting with parthenos (παρθένος) "a virgin (of any age)", and generic kore (κόρη < κόρϝα) "maiden, girl". The term is used by (human) women to address each other, so Iris addressing Helen, or Eurycleia addressing Penelope as νύμφα φίλη "dear nymph" (Il. 3.130, Od. 4.743). Reduced to νύφη, the word remains the regular Modern Greek term for "bride". In Katharevousa, it is still νύμφη, as in the of the Marian hymn Agni Parthene (c. 1880), χαῖρε νύμφη ἀνύμφευτε "hail, unwedded bride".
The Doric and Aeolic (Homeric) form is νύμφα. The Iliad (6.420) refers to "mountain nymphs, maidens of Zeus":
- ἠδ᾽ ἐπὶ σῆμ᾽ ἔχεεν: περὶ δὲ πτελέας ἐφύτευσαν / νύμφαι ὀρεστιάδες κοῦραι Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο. [Il. 6.419f.]
- "He [Achilles] heaped over him [Eetion] a barrow, and all about were elm-trees planted / by mountain-nymphs, maidens of Zeus the aegis-bearer."
The divine nymphs are called θεαὶ Νύμφαι "the nubile goddesses" in Il. 24.616. In mystical theology, the term is applied to souls seeking re-birth. The derived verb νυμφεύω means "to marry (of a woman)" (with dative), "to give in marriage (of the bride's father)" or "to marry (of the husband)" (with accusative).
The etymology of the noun νύμφη is not certain. It has been compared to Latin nubere "to wed", as derived from a word for "veil, cover", root cognate with Greek νέφος, Latin nubes ("cloud"), Greek νεφέλη, Latin nebula ("mist, vapor"), and Latin nimbus ("cloud cover"). This is not generally accepted. Beekes argues for a pre-Greek origin of the word. An alternative suggestion connects a word for "to bud, swell", from the root of German Knospe) "bud". This is informed by a gloss of Hesychius which gives "rose-bud" as a meaning of νύμφη.