Wordy Weekly MMXXII: Week II Starring roles!

Why is the Arctic called the Artic? Where does the word Galaxy come from?

This year’s second Wordy Weekly has an astronomical flavour.

The word ASTRONOMY itself comes from Greek:


ἀστήρ - star

νόμος - law


So, astronomy is literally the ‘law of the stars’, which is exactly what it actually is, their movements, behaviour, and what governs this. Nowadays, astronomy and astrology would be seen as stark opposites, the former seen as very scientific, the latter less so, but actually they were not considered incompatible, but with clear overlap and little distinction. ASTROLOGY comes from astrologia, a ‘telling of the stars.’ Etymonline defines ‘astrology’ as ‘calculation and foretelling based on observation of the heavenly bodies.’ This does not just refer to foretelling the future or reading the divine will, but also predicting the seasons, the timing of eclipses, all essential for the harvest, and, as Polybius would tell you, the general, if he was going to plan a successful campaign. The distinction crystallised later.


Galaxy comes from the Greek for milk. Γαλαξίος means ‘milky’. Yep, the name was originally applied to the galaxy we now call the Milky Way. It was refereed to as the γαλαξιος κυκλος, the ‘Milky circle’. The Greek term evolved into galaxias in Late Latin (Classical Latin called it the ‘circulus lacteus’, and then galaxie in French. The term ‘galaxy’ was then applied to any system of billions of stars, a system bound by gravitational force.


The derivation of the word Arctic is a favourite. It comes from the Greek for bear. ἀρκτός means bear. Now, apart from Βορέας for the North (hence the aurora Borealis – the Northern Dawn), the Greeks also used to refer to the North as the ἀρκτίκος, ‘of the North’, originally ‘of the Bear’, referring to the constellation, Ursa Major (the greater bear), which they knew and which marked the North. The Bear is perhaps the most famous polar constellation. So, if you say, ‘arctic polar bear’, you are actually saying, ‘bear polar bear’, which sounds silly.


The Antarctic is, therefore, the ‘opposite to the bear’, the ‘opposite to the North’, namely the South.


Expect more astronomy in the new Science and Discovery article series, ‘Celebrating Ancient Discoveries’.


More WW next week, until then, VALETE!

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