Looking directly at the—origin—of “eclipse”

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?

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During an eclipse, the sun is ever so…delinquent. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “Looking directly at the—origin—of “eclipse””

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“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 ∫

Cancer

This week, we lost two greats to cancer: David Bowie and Alan Rickman. Their passing so sudden, the news hit many hard, but cancer, as so many know too well, can be such a creeping foe. In its own small way, the etymology of cancer bears this out.

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“Cancer.” Doodle by me.

Cancer

Cancer spread into English from French and Latin, both taking the forms cancer. Latin’s cancer is ultimately connected to Greek’s καρκίνος (karkinos)As in its root tongues, the word cancer has had several meanings: “sore” or “ulcer,” the constellation Cancer and sign of the Zodiac, and, unifying these, “crab.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest English record of cancer comes in the late 1300s and is astrological, referring to the fourth sign of the Zodiac, representing the constellation Canceror the crab. The sign’s symbol, ♋, is said to depict the claws of a crab.

Hercules, so it goes, crushed a crab while fighting the Hydra. To honor the slain crustacean, Hera, that hater of Hercules, placed the crab among the stars, whose form clusters Cancer’s stars, at least to the ancient imagination.

In the early 1400s, English sees a reference to cancer, meaning “crab,” though the creature is likened to disease, in particular ulcers and sores, such were the early meanings of the word. References to tumors appear by the 1500s at least. It seems to me that something approaching a more modern sense begins to emerge in the late 1600s.

While cancer has a very specific medical meaning today, long has it named a spreading and creeping medical malignancy. And ancient, too, is the crab-like depiction of cancer (or the sorts of sores the word denoted in early healthcare).  As the Barnhart etymology dictionary explains:

The sense of a spreading sore developed, according to the Greek physician Galen, from the resemblance of the swollen veins surrounding the sore to the legs of a crab.

Galen was an influential and physician working in 2nd century CE – and should now have ruined crab legs for you.

The Latin and Greek roots of cancer also cause other English words. Canker is the oldest. It’s cited in early Old English and was associated with ulcers. Via a French form, chancre, especially allied with venereal lesions, comes in the late 1500s. As does carcinoma, which shows its Greek roots (karkinos) more conspicuously. Like carcinogen, a mid-19th century word formed on carcinoma. (Carcinogen, we saw not too long ago, ruined bacon for you.)

As for the deeper origins of cancer and karkinosIndo-Europeanists diagnose *kar-, a root hypothesized to mean “hard” – and indeed related to English’s very hard. These ancient words for crab, so it goes, are named for their hard, outer shell. (This root also produced a Greek word for “rule” and “strength,”  preserved in the suffix -cracy, as in democracy.)

To put it very mildly, cancer is hard. Really effin’ hard. But that hasn’t stopped us from searching for its Hercules. Indeed, in his final State of the Union address this past week, US President Barack Obama announced a mission to find a cure for cancer – a new moonshot. Which is metaphorically apt for our etymological purposes here, for, perhaps somewhere beyond the constellation Cancer, live on Ziggy Stardust and Alexander Dane.

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 ∫