Well over three billion miles from home, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been sending back a treasure trove of images and information in its historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto. A treasure trove indeed, if we look to the etymology of Pluto.
Of gods and dogs
American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in February 1930. With the discovery a sensation worldwide, the observatory took suggestions for the new celestial body’s name. A young student of classical mythology captivated by the new finding, 11-year-old Venetia Burney in Oxford, England suggested the name Pluto after the Greek god of the underworld. Her grandfather, a former Oxford librarian, passed her suggestion along to an astronomy professor at the university, who then cabled it the United States. In March, the name won the observatory’s vote, so it goes, as the god Pluto is concealed deep in his underworld just as the planet hides deep in the solar system. Additionally, Pluto’s first two letters nod to the observatory’s founder’s initials, Percival Lowell.
Walt Disney’s debuted his Pluto in 1931’s Moose Hunt. We don’t fully know the origin of Mickey’s dog’s name, but many suggest that Disney was inspired by the Pluto-mania of the day. Plutomania, or “the obsession with wealth,” is a rather different craze.
The root of all Pluto
In Greek mythology, Pluto (Πλούτων, Ploutōn) is an alternate name and identity for Hades, god of the underworld. He was associated – and confused – with Ploutos (Πλοῦτος), the Greek god of wealth, a domain Pluto himself was also known to rule over. See, riches like silver and gold come from Pluto’s territory: under the earth. Further, Pluto’s wife, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, brought with her other treasures of the earth – grain – when she seasonally emerged from the underworld.
Pluto passed from Greek to Latin, entering into English as early as 1330 to refer to the Roman figuration of this god.
Greek has πλοῦτος (ploutos), meaning “wealth” and “riches.” The sense of ploutos, then, may originally been “overflowing,” as the American Heritage Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European Roots posits. Greek lexicographers Liddell and Scott connect ploutos to a verb πίμπλημι (pimplēmi), “to fill full.” The OED proposes a connection to πλεῖν, “to swim” or “to float.” These forms point our probe towards that Pluto of etymology, Proto-Indo-European, with an ultimate root *pleu–, “to flow.” This root also yields English’s flow and flood – and fly, as in that very flyby of Pluto, if an etymology was ever to orbit itself. Via Latin, pluvial, “relating to rain,” is also so descended.
Lexicographer Eric Partridge suggests polus (πολύς), “many” or “much,” source of English’s prefix poly-. This is related to a Proto-Indo-European root that gives English full.
Of gods and men
News Horizons is the first flyby of Pluto, which is so incomprehensibly far away. Its images and information have certainly enriched our understanding of this dwarf planet, its moons, and its neck of the solar system. But what’s more, it has enriched our sense of what is possible, bestowing on professional astronomers and dreamy stargazers alike the riches of perspective: how immense the feats of man’s imagination, how tiny our place in the universe. If only that sense of wonder is what governed us under a plutocracy.