A mermaid is a mythological aquatic creature with a female human head, arms, and torso and the tail of a fish. A male version of a mermaid is known as a "merman" and in general both males and females are known as "merfolk". Mermaids are represented in the folklore, literature and popular culture of many countries worldwide.
"Mermaid" is a compound of mer, the French word for "sea", and maid, a girl or young woman. Though some movies show a male version of the mermaid, the merman, most mythology suggests that mermaids were only women and that there were no "mermen".
Much like sirens, mermaids will sing to people or to gods to enchant them, distracting them from their work and causing people to walk off a ship's deck or to run their ship aground. Other stories depict mermaids squeezing the life out of drowning men while attempting to rescue them. They are also said to carry humans down to their underwater kingdoms.
In Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, it is said that mermaids forget that humans cannot breathe underwater, while other stories say they drown men out of spite, while still other fables portray mermaids as benevolent toward men. This singing chant is probably a curse to the mermaid as well.
The sirens of Greek mythology are sometimes portrayed in later folklore as mermaid-like; in fact, some languages use the same word for both bird and fish creatures, such as the Maltese word 'sirena'. Other related types of mythical or legendary creatures are water fairies (e.g., various water nymphs) and selkies, animals that can transform themselves from seals to humans.
In modern times, the mermaid is used as an official animal, mascot of many mythical stories involving pirates and the sea. It is also associated with "sea cows" that are called manatees. Sailors would see the animals and categorize them as mythical mermaids.
Traditionally, mermaids have been depicted unclothed. When censorship is an issue, most prominent in movies, effort is made to have the mermaids’ long hair cover their breasts. In areas with strong censorship, notably in some U.S. family movies, mermaids have been wearing different variants of tops or swimsuits.