“Orbit”: Of the earth, out of this world

John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, left Earth yesterday at the age of 95. In his honor, let’s gaze at orbit – a word whose origin turns out to be much more down to earth.

Leaving a mark

As part of Project Mercury, John Glenn orbited Earth three times aboard the Friendship 7 in 1962. But almost 600 years earlier, the word orbit wasn’t even a verb. It didn’t even refer to space, in fact.

When orbit entered English’s lexical orbit in the late 1300s, it named the “eye socket.” The word came from the French orbite, in turn from the Medieval Latin orbita, which named the same anatomical structure. This is why doctors use orbital to refer to the eye socket.

But the etymology of orbit gets yet earthier: The older meaning of orbita in Latin was a “track or rut made by a wheel in the ground.” This orbita, speaking of John Glenn, could also refer to leaving an “impression” or “mark.” How do we get from our eyes on the ground and in our heads to our eyes in the heavens?

Not rocket science. Just metaphor.

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In orbiting the Earth, John Glenn truly left his mark. The original meaning of orbit in Latin was a “track made by a wheel in the ground.” Image by Vasant Dave, courtesy of freeimages.com.

“Circular” logic?

Latin’s orbita traces back to another noun, orbis, which denoted many “circular” objects: rings, disks, spheres, globes. Periods and cycles also have a circularity, and orbis named them, too – as it did, even way back in its original Latin, the path a heavenly body took across the sky and, yes, the eye socket. (Heavenly bodies were thought to encircle Earth, and eye sockets are a spherical encasement of the eyeball.) The deeper root of orbis is unknown.

So, when English developed its astronomical sense of orbit in the mid-1600s, it borrowed the word orbit again, this time straight from Latin. There are some important differences, though. For most Ancient Romans, celestial orbis and orbita referred to the circuit of planets, moons, suns, and stars as they revolved around Earth, while the English orbit has come to name the elliptical path an astronomical body takes around a more massive one as the result of gravity.

Out of this world

The Oxford English Dictionary attests orbit as a verb in 1946, and the expressions in orbit and out of orbit about a century before. And “out of orbit” is what exorbitant literally means.

More precisely, exorbitant derives from the Latin exorbitāre, “to go off track,” joining ex- (“out of”) with that original, “track” sense of orbita. The Romans used exorbitāre in legal contexts, referring to some action that went beyond the scope of the law. English adopted this meaning, too, in the 1400s, but over the following centuries, exorbitant designated behaviors that deviated from the norm, hence “excessive.”

John Glenn definitely exceeded norms, but only in some of the most impressive, inspiring, and heroic ways the United States has ever witnessed. He was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He was a US Senator, representing Ohio. At aged 77, he was the oldest person to go into space. He was a loyal husband of 73 years. And he was humble, lifelong supporter of science, wonder, and curiosity.

Glenn’s orbit was, in so many ways, out of this world.

m ∫ r ∫

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