How the word “climate” has changed

Rooted in a Greek verb meaning “to slope,” climate originally referred to seven latitudinal zones spanning the Earth.  

On Thursday, President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a 2015 landmark effort to combat climate change joined by nearly 200 countries—minus Syria, Nicaragua, and, now, the US. Where does the word climate come from it, and how has it changed over the years? 

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Climate is all about “slopes”: temperatures up, Earth down. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “How the word “climate” has changed”

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Why is it called “virtual” reality?

This week, Oculus VR released the Rift, the first virtual reality headset of its kind. But why is virtual reality called virtual? Let’s put on our, er, etymological goggles for this one; I promise it’ll be immersive. 

Virtue, mansplained

Today, we associate virtue with moral rectitude, often citing specific qualities like charity, patience, and temperance in contrast to vices like greed, gluttony, or taking selfies. English has been practicing this ethical virtue since the early 13th century, borrowing the word from the French vertu and the Latin virtus before that.

On a literal level, Latin’s virtus meant “manliness” or “manhood.” Indeed, at its root is vir, or “man.” The –tus was a noun-forming suffix, much like the very -hood we see in manhood. English derives the adjective virile from Latin’s vir. Viral and virulent are not related – by etymology, at least.

For its word for “man,” Old English used wer, a cognate of vir, which explains the were– in werewolf, literally a “man-wolf.” Wer is also related to world, a Germanic construct originally signifying a very anthropocentric planet Earth in “the age of man.”

The Irish fer or Welsh gwr are other notable relatives of vir and wer. For all this bromance, Indo-European scholars reconstruct the root *wi-ro, often used of warriors and slaves (i.e., captured warriors), itself derived from a base verb root meaning “to be vigorous,” as the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots explains.

The many virtues of virtue

For the ancient Romans, virtue also represented a traditionally heroic ideal. But they quickly extended virtus to encompass “strength” and “valor,” then generalized to “excellence,” “worth,” “quality,” or other special, inherent properties that gave something its “potency” or “efficacy.” French – and later, English – copied the vast and varied virtues of this word virtue.

When something has potency or efficacy, it has force, power, or authority. We might finish a marathon or dissertation – or this very blog post – by virtue of sheer willpower. This English expression actually translates a French expression, par la vertu de, or “by the power of,” often used in an official capacity.

By the 1400s, something virtual possessed virtue in that earlier sense of “power” or “efficacy.” As the Oxford English Dictionary  (OED) helpfully elucidates, something virtual was “inherently powerful or effective, owing to particular natural qualities.” Translating medieval Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus’ encyclopedic De Proprietatibus Rerum, Cornish author John Trevisa provides English the earliest record with vertual, from Latin’s virtualis.

No easy virtue 

Now, in Latin, virtualis was often said of the healing properties, physical and spiritual, of drugs or medicines (derived from plants), which can help us understand the big metaphysical jump virtual takes. By the the mid-1400s, particularly in religious contexts, the OED explains virtual meant “in essence, potentiality, or effect, although not in form or actuality.”

Should we dust off our Aristotle? Something virtual is effective in essence but not in name, and this usage is all rooted in the idea of virtue as possessing a sort of innate, self-actualizing power. Within the acorn is the potential for the actual oak tree; the acorn, very broadly speaking, is a virtual oak tree.

After the Iowa Caucuses, to leave the philosophy classroom, Bernie Sanders declared his contest there with Hillary Clinton a “virtual tie.” Clinton technically won more votes, but the victory was so narrow that the two were, for all intents and purposes, even.

And if I say I’m “virtually broke,” I may have a hundred or two bucks in my checking account, but I can’t actually pay my all bills. I am not literally broke in name, but, really, I just don’t have enough money to get by. Hence, I’m virtually – or very nearly or essentially  – broke. The OED records this usage by the mid-1600s.

Scientists took to this virtual. At least by the end of the 1600s, they were variously applying it to special phenomena, particularly theoretical, rather than observed, in their discipline.

Virtual‘s reality

Centuries later, computer scientists found the term especially useful. In 1959, John Cocke and Harwood Kolsky presented a paper on virtual memory for an important computer conference in Boston. They described virtual memory as a way to increase computer speed. As in today’s computers, virtual memory increases a computer’s physical memory by temporarily using empty space on the hard drive as if it were real. This memory is additional memory in essence, hence virtual.

In 1979, as the OED documents, IBM used virtual reality as we now know it in a programming announcement: “A base to develop an even more powerful operating system,…designated ‘Virtual Reality’…to enable the user to migrate to totally unreal universes.” If Oculus VR has its way, these universes will be not unreal but all too real. That is, if you can your hands on one. I hear they’re virtually impossible to get.

m ∫ r ∫

meteor (re-post)

Somehow, the link to the original post on meteor burned up like, well, a meteor in Earth’s atmosphere. Or should I say it had a meteoric rise — and fall? After some fruitless troubleshooting,  I’ve re-posted in the hopes this link, like a meteorite, makes impact.

This week, we’ve had quite the show. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump: I’m talking about the Perseid meteor shower. It’s fitting a stargazer can behold so many shooting stars during these annual Perseids, because the origin of meteor is in many ways all about plurals.

OK,
OK, “that which is hung up” in Ancient Greece referred to swords, not shirts. Doodle by me.

Meteor

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites meteor in the late 15th-century in a plural form (metheours), naming “a treatise on atmospheric phenomenon.” English owes this usage to the French meteores, in turn from the Latin meteora. These are largely indebted to one treatise in particular: Aristotle’s Meterologica, which was sometimes recorded as Meteora in Latin.

In Meterologica, Aristotle discusses various topics, such as evaporation, earthquakes, weather, and the atmosphere, as well as other geographic and geologic phenomena. Aristotle: philosopher, scientist, weatherman.

Meteorologists, of course, study weather and the atmosphere, not meteors. So how is a shooting star connected to partly cloudy?

In the 16th century, early meteorologists classified meteors into four types, according to the OED:

Atmospheric phenomena were formerly often classed as aerial meteor or airy meteors (winds), aqueous meteor or watery meteors (rain, snow, hail, dew, etc.), luminous meteors (the aurora, rainbow, sun halo, etc…), and igneous meteor or  fiery meteors (lightning, shooting stars, etc.).

Today, of course, we inherited a more narrow understanding of meteor, of course, but the further etymology of the word shows what all the phenomena have in common.

Like its direct Latin descendant meteora, the Ancient Greek μετέωρα (meteora) was a plural noun: “celestial phenomenon.” Literally, though, it means “things lifted up off the ground.” You  know, like rain, rainbows, shooting stars, or the other atmospheric matters happening over our heads? Meteor joins two elements: 1) μετα- (meta), a versatile prefix suffix denoting, among other things, “over” and “beyond,” and 2) a form of the verb ἀείρειν (aeirein)“to raise” or “lift up.”

Meta- survives today not only in technical words like metaphysics and metathesis, but also as a term in its own right, used especially for self-referential cultural production. For example, a TV show about a TV show may be called “very meta.” While it may look quite foreign, ἀείρειν (aeirein) lives on in all of our postmodern hearts: It produced aorta. In Greek, ἀορτή (aorte) literally means “that which is hung.” Hippocrates used the term for bronchial tubes, while Aristotle, adding anatomist to his résumé, applied the term to the main artery to the heart. If you look at the body’s aorta, the name is quite apt.

Artery also derives from aeirein. Perhaps all this body talk makes you queasy? You might want to go out and get some air. Er—that, too, might derive from aeireinBut while you’re out there, don’t forget to look up.

meteor_scribblesm ∫ r ∫

meteor

This week, we’ve had quite the show. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump: I’m talking about the Perseid meteor shower. It’s fitting a stargazer can behold so many shooting stars during these annual Perseids, because the origin of meteor is in many ways all about plurals.

OK, "hangers" in Ancient Greece held up swords, not shirts.
OK, “that which is hung up” in Ancient Greece referred to swords, not shirts. Doodle by me.

Meteor

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites meteor in the late 15th-century in a plural form (metheours), naming “a treatise on atmospheric phenomenon.” English owes this usage to the French meteores, in turn from the Latin meteora. These are largely indebted to one treatise in particular: Aristotle’s Meterologica, which was sometimes recorded as Meteora in Latin.

In Meterologica, Aristotle discusses various topics, such as evaporation, earthquakes, weather, and the atmosphere, as well as other geographic and geologic phenomena. Aristotle: philosopher, scientist, weatherman.

Meteorologists, of course, study weather and the atmosphere, not meteors. So how is a shooting star connected to partly cloudy?

In the 16th century, early meteorologists classified meteors into four types, according to the OED:

Atmospheric phenomena were formerly often classed as aerial meteor or airy meteors (winds), aqueous meteor or watery meteors (rain, snow, hail, dew, etc.), luminous meteors (the aurora, rainbow, sun halo, etc…), and igneous meteor or  fiery meteors (lightning, shooting stars, etc.).

Today, of course, we inherited a more narrow understanding of meteor, of course, but the further etymology of the word shows what all the phenomena have in common.

Like its direct Latin descendant meteora, the Ancient Greek μετέωρα (meteora) was a plural noun: “celestial phenomenon.” Literally, though, it means “things lifted up off the ground.” You  know, like rain, rainbows, shooting stars, or the other atmospheric matters happening over our heads? Meteor joins two elements: 1) μετα- (meta), a versatile prefix suffix denoting, among other things, “over” and “beyond,” and 2) a form of the verb ἀείρειν (aeirein)“to raise” or “lift up.”

Meta- survives today not only in technical words like metaphysics and metathesis, but also as a term in its own right, used especially for self-referential cultural production. For example, a TV show about a TV show may be called “very meta.” While it may look quite foreign, ἀείρειν (aeirein) lives on in all of our postmodern hearts: It produced aorta. In Greek, ἀορτή (aorte) literally means “that which is hung.” Hippocrates used the term for bronchial tubes, while Aristotle, adding anatomist to his résumé, applied the term to the main artery to the heart. If you look at the body’s aorta, the name is quite apt.

Artery also derives from aeirein. Perhaps all this body talk makes you queasy? You might want to go out and get some air. Er—that, too, might derive from aeireinBut while you’re out there, don’t forget to look up.

meteor_scribblesm ∫ r ∫