Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?

With roots in ancient astrology and alchemy, the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols may ultimately derive from ancient Greek abbreviations for the names of gods.

This week, President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s “protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity,” as the New York Times reported

Covering the story, many media outlets have presented images of gender-neutral bathroom signs such as:

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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant bathroom sign, courtesy of adasigndepot.com


This symbol, by no means universally embraced by the transgender community, seeks to depict non-binary gender identity by joining the classical sex symbols for male (♂) and female (♀) with a combined male-female one (⚦).

Where do these male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from, anyway?

Continue reading “Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?”

The winged victory of “Nice”

“Words cannot express,” our leaders begin their remarks on the horrific attack in Nice, France. The carnage shocks us and saddens us into the disbelief of speechlessness. But just as words fail us, we also turn to them to make sense, some sort of sense, of tragedy. So it is with the word Nice, whose origin may raise us up, if in the smallest of ways.

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Nike endures, Nice endures: The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Image © 2014 Musée du Louvre, Philippe Fuzeau.  


Ancient Greek mariners from Phocaea, on the Aegean Turkey, founded colonies along France’s Mediterranean coast called Massalía, now Marseilles. As far as we know, some Massaliotes battled a neighboring tribe of an Italo-Celtic people, the Ligures, in 350 BC. The Greeks won, and founded a new city there. To commemorate their victory, they named their new settlement Nikaia, honoring their goddess of victory. Her name was Nike.

In addition to personifying the goddess, the word nike, or νίκη in ancient Greek, meant “victory,” including victory in battle, Olympic games, and in more general undertakings. The further roots are unknown; some suggest a pre-Greek origin, others look to an earlier Greek word meaning “strife” or “to quarrel.” Latin rendered Nikaia as Nicaea, which became Nice in French.

Nike lives on, of course, in the athletic brand, but also in Nicholas, which literally means “victory-people.” It joins nike with laos, “people.” Laos often referred to “common people,” and it gives English lay, as in a layperson.

The ancient Greeks wrote of “trim-ankled” Nike, who drove Zeus’ own chariot with her renowned speed and spread her iconic wings over victors in the battlefield. Her wings are still outspread in her famed sculpture in the Louvre, where she greet visitors as The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Her wings are outspread, too, over all the people of her namesake, Nice.

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Of gods and dung: the origins of “ammonia”

Scientists know ammonia as:

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Ancient Egyptians also knew ammonia with their own, equally complex symbols:

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Well, in a manner of speaking. Or writing. The story of the word ammonia is one of modern science and ancient history – and of camel dung and supreme deities.


Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman coined ammonia in 1782 when he identified the substance as the gas that can be obtained from sal ammoniac. Previously, ammonia was called spirit of hartshorn in English, as it was distilled from the nitrogen-laden horns and hooves of animals, which is much more pleasant than other sources of the chemical.

Literally meaning “salt of Ammon,” sal ammoniac is a crystalline salt which was once derived from the dung of camels, apparently. (And you thought ammonia smelled bad.) Ancient Libya had a shrine to Jupiter Ammon. Worshippers would hitch their camels to pay their respects as they passed through the area, known as Ammonia. Meanwhile, their camels would pour their own libations: chemically rich excrement. Enterprising, and adventurous, individuals collected the soiled sands to produce sal ammoniac.

Following their conquest of Northern Africa, the Romans mapped their king of the gods, Jupiter, onto an Egyptian supreme deity, Amun. The Greeks rendered Amun as Ammon, which the Romans adapted for Jupiter Ammon.

Amun was often depicted with a ram’s horn, which paleontologists later thought resembled the spiraling shells of an extinct mollusk, the ammonite. The name Amun, whose hieroglyph is featured above, may derive from a word meaning “invisible” or “hidden” – not unlike the very gas in which his name surprisingly lives on.

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Well over three billion miles from home, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been sending back a treasure trove of images and information in its historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto. A treasure trove indeed, if we look to the etymology of Pluto.

Trans-Neputnian. "Gem." Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
Trans-Neputnian. “Gem.” Ballpoint on lined paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Of gods and dogs

American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in February 1930. With the discovery a sensation worldwide, the observatory took suggestions for the new celestial body’s name. A young student of classical mythology captivated by the new finding, 11-year-old Venetia Burney in Oxford, England suggested the name Pluto after the Greek god of the underworld. Her grandfather, a former Oxford librarian, passed her suggestion along to an astronomy professor at the university, who then cabled it the United States. In March, the name won the observatory’s vote, so it goes, as the god Pluto is concealed deep in his underworld just as the planet hides deep in the solar system. Additionally, Pluto’s first two letters nod to the observatory’s founder’s initials, Percival Lowell.

Walt Disney’s debuted his Pluto in 1931’s Moose Hunt. We don’t fully know the origin of Mickey’s dog’s name, but many suggest that Disney was inspired by the Pluto-mania of the day. Plutomania, or “the obsession with wealth,” is a rather different craze.

The root of all Pluto

In Greek mythology, Pluto (ΠλούτωνPloutōn) is an alternate name and identity for Hades, god of the underworld. He was associated – and confused – with Ploutos (Πλοῦτος), the Greek god of wealth, a domain Pluto himself was also known to rule over. See, riches like silver and gold come from Pluto’s territory: under the earth. Further, Pluto’s wife, Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, brought with her other treasures of the earth – grain – when she seasonally emerged from the underworld.

Pluto passed from Greek to Latin, entering into English as early as 1330 to refer to the Roman figuration of this god.

Greek has πλοῦτος (ploutos), meaning “wealth” and “riches.” The sense of ploutos, then, may originally been “overflowing,” as the American Heritage Dictionary of Proto-Indo-European Roots posits. Greek lexicographers Liddell and Scott connect ploutos to a verb πίμπλημι (pimplēmi), “to fill full.” The OED proposes a connection to πλεῖν, “to swim” or “to float.” These forms point our probe towards that Pluto of etymology, Proto-Indo-European, with an ultimate root *pleu, “to flow.” This root also yields English’s flow and flood – and fly, as in that very flyby of Pluto, if an etymology was ever to orbit itself. Via Latin, pluvial, “relating to rain,” is also so descended.

Lexicographer Eric Partridge suggests polus (πολύς), “many” or “much,” source of English’s prefix poly-. This is related to a Proto-Indo-European root that gives English full.

Of gods and men

News Horizons is the first flyby of Pluto, which is so incomprehensibly far away. Its images and information have certainly enriched our understanding of this dwarf planet, its moons, and its neck of the solar system. But what’s more, it has enriched our sense of what is possible, bestowing on professional astronomers and dreamy stargazers alike the riches of perspective: how immense the feats of man’s imagination, how tiny our place in the universe. If only that sense of wonder is what governed us under a plutocracy.


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