In a “galaxy”… so, so close to home

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

From its opening lines to its ticket lines, Star Wars,  whose latest episode, The Force Awakens, opened this week, is as epic as its interstellar setting.  But the etymology of this galaxy, it turns out, is so, so close to home.

Not just any old trip to the store. "Galaxy." Doodle by me.
Not just any old trip to the store. “Galaxy.” Doodle by me.

Galaxy

English first gazes at the word galaxy, so to speak, late in the 1300s. It first named the Milky Way. Several centuries later, it was referring to other such star systems, whose existence Edwin Hubble only officially verified in the 1920s.

Galaxy derives from the Latin galaxias. It may have entered English either directly from Latin or through a French form of the word, galaxie. Latin borrowed its word from Greek’s γαλαξίας (galaxias)short for γαλαξίας κύκλος (galaxias kyklos), which means “milky circle.” And at the center of this galaxias is no black hole: it’s γάλα (gála), “milk.” (The base is γαλακτ-, or galakt-.)

Milky ways 

Have you ever looked up a clear night sky and marveled at that streaming band of stars glowing white overhead? You’re beholding the Milky Way, the galaxy we call home. Indeed, as galaxy‘s etymology has already suggested, the Milky Way takes its name from its milky-white appearance. Chaucer himself notes this a long time ago in his oft-quoted “House of Fame”:

Se yonder, loo, the Galoxie,
Whiche men clepeth the melky weye,
For hit ys white…

This poetry of Milky Way was indeed inspired: the English name calques the Latin via lactea, a translation of the Greek galaxias kyklos, as we saw before.

Intragalactic

Now, fix your etymological telescope on the Latin lactea and Greek galaxias. Do you see anything in common? Gaze at lact- and –lax- and you might see that the words share an orbit. (The basic Latin noun for “milk” is lac, source of lactic, lactate, latte, and even lettuce, whose juice is milky, apparently.)

For these Latin and Greek cognates, Indo-Europeanists propose a root *g(a)lag- or *g(a)lakt-, “milk.” But, interestingly, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that “no common Indo-European root for milk can be reconstructed.” This is little curious, perhaps, given that scholars can construct a common root for, say, cow. Germanic words, such as English’s milk, suckle a different root: *melg-, which refers to “rubbing off,” an action for obtaining milk, I suppose.

The universe is home to hundreds of billions of galaxies, each of which holds hundred of billions of stars. And our word for these incomprehensibly huge, imponderably numerous phenomena derives from something so mundane, so ordinary: “milk.” Now I think that’s epic.

m ∫ r ∫

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6 thoughts on “In a “galaxy”… so, so close to home

  1. Portuguese “almanjarra” (a beam which connects an animal to a mill) and Andalusian Spanish “almajárrah” (water-wheel beam) as well as dialectal Spanish “almiharra”, “almijarra” (a potter’s tool) seem to derive originally from Arabic “al-majarra” (المجرة) “the beam” which is also the Arabic for ‘galaxy’ – “majarra” ( مَجَرَّة). Maybe a notion of the ‘beam’ of stars of the Milky Way from the perspective of Earth moving across the sky?

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