A total solar eclipse will stretch across the United States today from Oregon to South Carolina. As umbraphiles look up at the eerie splendor of the rare astronomical event, I can’t help but look down—in my etymological dictionaries. Where does the word eclipse come from?
The earliest evidence the Oxford English Dictionary finds for the word eclipse comes in Chaucer’s 1370s translation of Boethius’s influential Consolation of Philosophy: “When the moon is in the eclipse, that it it be enchanted.” The larger passage describes people who, not understanding the nature of an eclipse, beat on bowls to scare away spirits they fear are preying on the moon.
In the 1500s, eclipse took on its figurative shades of “obscuration” or “loss of brilliance.” In the 1700s, it doubled as a slang term for a form of cheating in dice games.
Eclipse is a learned word in English, brought into the language via translation of Latin and Greek texts during the Middle Ages. Greek had ekleipsis (ἔκλειψις), literally “a forsaking” or “abandonment,” as the sun leaves the sky when the moon passes over it.
Ekleipsis joins ek-, “out” (the Greek version of Latin’s ex-) and leipein, “to leave.” The prefix ek- also appears as ecto– throughout English, like ectoplasm and tonsillectomy. The verb leipein is also behind the Greek ellipsis, and, if we look to its Latin counterpart (linquere, leave), relinquish, derelict, and relic. Its ancient Proto-Indo-European root, *leikw-, ultimately becomes loan and lend in English—and, incredibly, the numbers eleven and twelve, which are literally “one left over” and “two left over.”
You should never gaze at an eclipse without the proper eyewear, but we learned here that staring straight into the origin of eclipse won’t burn out our retinas.
And for more on the development of the word, check out Ben Zimmer’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal.