Category Archives: Words

Letters From Abroad: Eng

Variants of engI’ve always been fascinated by the way languages other than English use letters other than our familiar 26—not so much completely different alphabets, like Greek, Arabic or Cyrillic, but those little tweaks to the Latin alphabet, ranging from unusual diacritical marks to additional letters, that other languages use to communicate particular sounds to their readers. So this is the first of what may or may not grow into a series of posts entitled “Letters From Abroad”—and it deals with the letter ŋ, which is called (among other things) an eng.

Eng symbolizes the nasal sound most commonly indicated by the letter pair “ng” in English—technically called a velar nasal, it’s the sound we make at the end of words like sing and thing. Less obviously, it’s also the sound we usually give the letter “n” when it comes before a “k” or a “g”—as in pink or bingo. If you try to say pink or bingo with a pure “n” sound, you’ll be aware that your tongue has to do a little leap backwards between the “n” and the next sound. The “n” is an alveolar nasal sound, with the tongue tip pressed forward behind the teeth while air flows through the nose, whereas “g” and “k” are velar stops, with the tongue moving back to block the airflow against the soft palate—hence the sense of rapid tongue movement if we try to sound an “n” followed by a “k” or “g”. In normal speech we tend to let one sound slide into the next, and so when pronouncing pink and bingo normally we just keep our tongues against the soft palate and cycle smoothly from the velar nasal to the velar stop. Since ŋ is the phonetic symbol for that velar nasal sound, we can say that pink is pronounced /pɪŋk/, not /pɪnk/.

The reason we ended up with the odd letter combination “ng” to symbolize the velar nasal sound in English is because we used to pronounce the “g” at the end of words like sing. So exactly the same thing happened to the “n” when we tried to say “sin-g” as happens to the “n” in bingo. We said /sɪŋɡ/, not /sɪnɡ/. And then, after a while, when English dropped the terminal hard “g” sound, we hung on to the velar nasal pronunciation and the original spelling. *

Long ago, the Ancient Greeks noticed the velar nasal sound that occurred before their velar stops, symbolized by their letters gamma (γ) and kappa (κ). They marked the eng sound in these locations with a letter gamma, so that γγ was pronounced /ŋɡ/ and γκ, /ŋk/. Latin writers tell us that the Greeks had a special name for a letter gamma when it was performing this duty—with a simple sound transposition, they called it an agma. That word was adopted in English as a name for the velar nasal sound, but by association with the sound it symbolized, it has mutated into angma.

Eng is an old word, dating back to at least the twelfth century, when it appears in a treatise on the sounds of Old Norse, Fyrsta Málfræðiritgerðin (First Grammatical Treatise)—in that text it’s associated with the velar nasal sound, but assigned a completely different symbol, like a letter “g” with a bar through it. The etymology of eng is probably simply imitative, like other letters of the alphabet. And it seems to have had an influence on angma, which sometimes appears in a hybrid form, engma. So we have actually four words for the same sound, but eng is the word that’s nowadays most often associated with the symbol ŋ, so that’s the name I’m using here.

So much for the sound and its name. Where did the symbol ŋ come from? William Holder seems nearly to have got it into print in 1669, but his printers let him down. In the errata to his book Elements Of Speech, he wrote that:

… there was intended a Character for Ng, viz. n with a tail like that of g …

But the printers (not having such a character in their type-box) had replaced his carefully crafted manuscript symbol with a random selection of  n‘s and y‘s.

Benjamin Franklin seems to have been the first person to both usher the eng character into print and propose it as a new letter of the alphabet (rather than just a symbol for a sound), in his “Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling” which appeared in his essay collection Political, Miscellaneous and Philosophical Pieces (1779).

Franklin's engAnd it has been hanging around as a potential letter of the alphabet ever since. It featured (in a slightly curlier form, emphasizing its relationship to both “n” and “g”) in James Pitman’s Initial Teaching Alphabet, which enjoyed a brief vogue in UK “progressive” schools during the 1960s, ensuring that some of my contemporaries had to learn to read twice (and that some have been unable to spell since).


So the eng never made it into the English alphabet. But it turns up elsewhere:Orongo sign with eng, Easter IslandThis sign is on Easter Island, and it’s a new one. An older sign for the same placename looks like this:Orongo sign with ng, Easter IslandThe older Rapa Nui alphabet used “ng” for the velar nasal sound, but that alphabet was a colonial inheritance, and the digraph makes little sense, particularly since the Rapa Nui language has no other use for the letter “g”. But at the turn of the millennium there was a resurgence of interest in written Rapa Nui, with textbooks and a newspaper being produced for what had previously been largely a spoken language, and the opportunity was taken to rationalize the spelling, producing a new alphabet that ditched the colonial “ng” and replaced it with an eng. In the example of Oroŋo, above, it dissuades English speakers from reading the name of the place as O-ron-go, with a hard “g”, and reminds us to say O-rong-o instead. (Although, in a hair-tearing moment on Easter Island, I overheard an English couple solemnly deciding that “ŋ” was a combination of “n” and “j”, after which they carefully repeated O-ron-jo to each other a few times, nodding sagely.)

Elsewhere, too, old orthographies are being discarded, and native speakers are replacing them with character sets that better suit their purposes. Alphabetical restrictions that are inherited, in many cases, from the keyboard of a missionary’s typewriter, are being replaced using the rich resources available from modern electronic typesetting. So the eng now appears in a slew of African languages, extending in a line from Senegal to Sudan (with a couple of outliers in Zambia). The other big eng consumers are the Sámi languages of the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. And there are a scatter of others, from Australian Aborigines to Alaskan Inuit. The Native American Lakota alphabet also uses the eng, but in a different way from the other languages. It only ever appears after a vowel, and it indicates that the preceding vowel is nasalized—so the eng is performing the same function in Lakota as the tilde accent has in Portuguese.

Finally, there’s the matter of the capital eng. It comes in two styles, which appear at the head of this post. You can either preserve the style of the lower case letter, but make it bigger, or you can add a curved tail to a conventional capital “N”. These are called the “n-form” and “N-form” respectively. Which form you get depends on the font you’re writing in—at the head of the post, Times New Roman on the left is n-form, but the same text converted to Cambria on the right is N-form.

A factoid that echoes around the Internet claims that the African languages take the n-form capital, whereas the Sámi take the N-form. But in practice, there’s not much evidence of this. Electronic publishing often means that the writer has little or no control over the typeface seen by the reader, and it’s possible to find African websites sporting the N-form, just as one can find Sámi texts using the n-form. The distinction, if it ever existed, is certainly fading.

Every now and then, though, problems occur. Sometimes the typesetter doesn’t have either the character set or the patience to hunt down an eng. So occasionally another similar character is pressed into service. Here’s another example from Easter Island, in which some despairing Rapa Nui sign-maker has pressed a Greek lower-case eta (complete with diaeresis) into use, enlarging it to match the capital letters on either side:Rapa Nui sign using an eta instead of an eng, Easter Island

* In fact, we didn’t all drop the “g”—in parts of England, notably around Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham, people still say /sɪŋɡ/ rather than /sɪŋ/, a pronunciation that’s been called “velar nasal plus”.


ˈwɒs(ə)l / ˈwæs(ə)l / ˈwɒseɪl / ˈwæseɪl

wassail: a salutation spoken when presenting a cup of wine or drinking to another’s health; the wine drunk on such an occasion; the custom of drinking wine in this way on special occasions; a carousal or celebration; a song sung during such a carousal or celebration; to celebrate or to drink to someone’s health1856 Twelfth Night Wassail Bowl

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wandering
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Traditional English Christmas carol

The first problem with wassail is how to pronounce it. You can say it to rhyme with “hassle”, or you can round the first vowel to make it sound like the start of “wobble”. And instead of condensing the second syllable to something like “sill”, you can say it like “sail”. All are acceptable versions.

It started life as a salutation in Old Norse, ves heill, meaning “be well”. The equivalent in Old English was wes hál, and in both languages it was something you said on meeting or departing—the equivalent of both hail and farewell. But it seems to have mutated into a specific drinking toast among the Danish settlements in England, and it is in that form it turns up in Middle English. A cup was raised or presented with the words Wæs hæil, and the toast was return by saying Drinc hæil—“drink in good health”.

From there, wassail underwent a series of transformations. The wine drunk during the toast became known as wassail, too, and it was drunk from a wassail-cup filled from a wassail-bowl. Then wassail drinking became associated with particular festivals—Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night—and wassail came to be the name of the custom of offering wassail-cups on those occasions. From there it was a short leap to calling any sort of celebratory drinking party a wassail. And finally it became associated with drinking songs, and with Christmas carols.

The first part of the word, wes in Old English, is a little piece of linguistic archaeology, reminding us that we used to have more verb forms in English than we do now. There used to be two verbs “to be” in Old English—beon and wesan. Wesan had connotations of current relevance, while beon applied to habitual states, especially if they implied a state of being that would extend into the future. They shared a common past tense (derived from wesan), but existed in separate forms in the present, subjunctive, imperative and participial. The subtle distinction in meaning between the two different verbs seems to have been patchily observed, at best, and, the various duties of “to be” were soon divvied up between the two  verbs. In modern English, wesan has won the battle for the present tense—am, are and is are all little changed from their Old English wesan equivalents (as are the past tense was and were). But beon has kept the infinitive and the participles—to be, being, been.

Going back to Old English again, the verb in wes hál is the imperative singular form of wesan, used to issue a command or instruction to a single person. We don’t use imperative forms of the verb in English any more, but we do have imperative clauses that do the same job, and they use the infinitive form of the verb: “Be well!”

The second word in the phrase that gave us wassail is hál, “healthy”. And we still use hale in that sense, in the phrase “hale and hearty”. And since wes hál was originally a greeting, we also have hail, in the sense of a greeting (“hail and farewell”), which is now more commonly associated with the act of shouting to someone to attract their attention, as with a loudhailer. Another association with greeting provides hail with yet another meaning—a cry of adulation, as in “Hail, Caesar!” The German equivalent is heil, as in the notorious Nazi salute, “Seig Heil!” meaning “Hail victory!”

Hál is also the origin of health, healthy and heal. In the 15th century there was a sudden enthusiasm for adding “w” to the start of words beginning with “h”, and that gave us wholesome, “health-giving”, and whole, with an original sense of being uninjured, and therefore healthy.

Another strand of development for this word takes us back to its Teutonic roots. While heill meant “healthy” (or “lucky”) in Old Norse, heilagr meant “holy”. The same thing happened in Old High German, in which the adjective heil, meaning “healthy”, contrasted with heilag, “holy”. And in Old English we have hál, “healthy” and halig, “holy”. The link seems to have been with the idea that something holy is inviolable or perhaps indestructible—it stays healthy (if it is a person or god) or whole (if it is an object).

The association with holiness and healthiness made these roots a popular source of children’s names—we have Helga, Olga and Ole, and an old German name Heiluid (“healthy and wide”!) which is the origin of the French Héloïse , which in turns gives us Eloise, Louise, Louis and Lois.

Old English halig of course gave us holy and hallow. In addition to being a verb, “to make holy”, hallow also used to be a noun—a hallow was a holy person or saint. All-Hallows meant “all the saints” (a common dedication for a church). All Hallows’ Day was the festival of All Saints, celebrated on the first day of November, and also called Hallowmas. The day before Hallowmas was Hallow-Eve or Hallow-e’en, which is the origin of our (generally very different) celebration of Halloween.

Halidom is a combination of holy with the suffix -dom, which designates either a state of being (boredom, freedom) or a domain of some kind (kingdom, Christendom). So a halidom is in a state of being holy—it’s a holy place or holy relic. A piece of folk etymology later stepped in to produce the variant holidame— in the belief that the word referred to a “holy dame” in the form of the Virgin Mary. Although neither version crops up much in conversation these days, it was common in the 16th century to swear using references to holy objects and personages, and the oath “By my halidom” crops up several times in the plays of Shakespeare.

JULIA: Host, will you go?
HOST: By my halidom, I was fast asleep.

Two Gentlemen of Verona Act IV, Scene 2

And finally there are plants of  family Malvaceae that used to be called hocks, but which are now known as mallows. There are many varieties, including the Common Mallow, the Marsh Mallow, and the Hollyhock—the “holy mallow”.


To finish on a Christmas theme, I’d love to tell you that the name of the holly plant has the same derivation—but it doesn’t. It seems instead to have a long and obscure etymology stretching back to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root kel-, meaning “to cut or prick”.

So I’ll just wish you a good wassail, if you’re inclined to have one.


Perihelion: Part 3

Earth at perihelion
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

At last, the final instalment of my series of posts about words relating to perihelion. In my first post on the subject, I discussed the various technical terms in astronomical use (and some that have simply been invented by Wikipedians). In my second post, I discussed words formed from the prefix peri-, and its opposite, apo-. This time around I’m going to talk about words relating to Greek helios, “sun”.

The element helium takes its name from helios because it was, improbably, discovered in the sun before it was known here on Earth—its presence heralded by an unidentified emission line in the spectrum of solar prominences.

A heliograph is a “sun-writer”—a system of mirrors used to send messages by reflected sunlight. If something resembles a child’s drawing of the sun—a central circle and spreading rays—it is helioid. A heliolator is a sun-worshipper, and heliotherapy is an attempt to treat disease by exposure to sunlight. An animal or plant is heliophilous if it loves sunlight; it may exhibit heliotaxis (moving towards the sun) or heliotropy (turning towards the sun). Something that exhibits heliotropy is a heliotrope—a name once given to plants like sunflowers and marigolds that turn their flowers to follow the sun, but now applied to a family of little purple flowers that were once imagined to turn in this way. (Which is why the colour heliotrope is a shade of purple, and not a cheery sunflower- or marigold-yellow.)

Heliotrope flowers

The opposite of heliophilous is heliophobic (“sun-fearing”), heliofugal (“sun-fleeing”) or apheliotropic (“moving away from the sun”); the last of which employs our old friend, previously discussed, the prefix apo-. A leaf is paraheliotropic if it turns itself edge-on to overly bright sunlight, so as to avoid burning; and a lizard is diaheliotropic if it turns its long axis transverse to the sunlight, so as to present a large surface area in order to warm quickly on a chilly morning.

I’ve written in the past about parhelia (“beside-suns”)—the patches of bright rainbow light that can appear on either side of the sun, which are also known as sun-dogs. An anthelion is a patch of back-scattered sunlight directly opposite the sun—it’s responsible for the glory that is sometimes seen surrounding aeroplane shadows, or the shadows of mountaineers. And paranthelia are a kind of sun-dog to the anthelion—patches of vague brightness caused by multiple reflections within hexagonal ice crystals either side of the antisolar point. (Although anthelion is formed from the prefix ant- combined with helion, it’s pronunciation gives it a central soft “th” sound: ænˈθiːlɪən.)

And by slipping in the word anti-solar, “opposite the sun”, I’ve made my segue to Latin—sol is the Latin word for “sun”, and solar pertains to the sun. As you’ll know if you’ve read Andy Weir’s book The Martian (or seen the film), sol is the technical term for a Martian day, which is forty minutes longer than its Earth equivalent. The actors in Ridley Scott’s film seemed to be a little uncertain about how to pronounce it—it’s sɒl, with a short vowel that rhymes with doll, not dole. The word has shaken off its Latin origins, and with them its Latin pronunciation. If something resembles the sun in its brilliance (literal or metaphorical) it is soliform; and a solarium is a place you go to enjoy the sun.

The word solstice comes from Latin solstitium, “sun standstill”—the times twice a year, when the sun stops moving towards higher latitudes and starts drifting back towards the equator. A summer solstice produces the longest day and shortest night in one hemisphere of the Earth, but it is simultaneously a winter solstice for the opposite hemisphere, bringing the longest night and shortest day. So unless the context is geographically specific, it’s better to talk about the June solstice and the December solstice. At best talk of “the” summer solstice creates potential confusion; at worst, it causes offence to folk in the southern hemisphere who are justifiably tired of “north-centric” usages.

Something you can hold between yourself and the sun, to get a little shade, is a parasol. An oriental parasol, made of bamboo and oiled paper, used to be called a kittisol, from the Portuguese and Spanish quitasol, “warding off the sun”. And the idea of warding off the sun is implicit in the English word umbrella, too—from the Italian ombrella, “little shadow”. The French at least have a name that matches function—French umbrellas are parapluies, “against the rain”.

Something that follows the sun is solisequious. That gives us the Latin equivalent of Greek heliotrope—solsequium or solsequy, old names for the marigold. French tournesol, “turn-sun”, gives us the English turnsole, an old word for both the heliotrope plant and a kind of purple dye. And Italian girasole (“turn-sun”, again) is the origin of girasol, an old name for the sunflower.

The North American sunflower Helianthus tuberosus was imported to Italy in the seventeenth century, primarily as a root vegetable. Its tubers were found to taste like artichoke, so the Italians called it girasole articiocco “sunflower artichoke”. English speakers imported the vegetable, but misheard the name. And so the girasole articiocco became the Jerusalem artichoke.

Jerusalem Artichoke flowers
Jerusalem artichoke flowers photographed by Paul Fenwick, used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.



nosthedony: The pleasure to be gained from examining old objects

Stone arrowheadMany of the [museum’s] objects touched me with nosthedony—the pleasure of returning to the past. For in many of the items I saw reflected a time when human life was different, perhaps less secure, certainly less austere.

Brian Aldiss “Appearance of Life” (1976)

Like anti-agathic, this word was coined by a science-fiction writer—the quotation above marks its first ever appearance. But unlike anti-agathic, it’s not a science-fiction word—it seems like a word we almost all need, at one time or another, and I think it deserves wider currency.

Aldiss is a great word-coiner. His Helliconia trilogy, which I recently reviewed, contained many words created especially to designate concepts and objects unique to his imagined world. Some were made up out of whole cloth, like harneys, which Aldiss used for the combination of mind and brain; some were old words pressed into new usage, like eddre, for the heart and emotions; and some were deliberately constructed from familiar etymological components. In this last category there’s his description of the minds of his alien “phagors” as being eotemporal—the phagors have little understanding of time (or at least respond to it differently from humans) and eotemporal seems to be a hybrid word meaning “dawning time”. Others of his inventions were more opaque—some of his human characters worship “God the Azoiaxic“, a word that made me fret for quite a while before, late in the final novel, Aldiss has one of his characters state that this deity is itself unliving, but central to the existence of all living creatures. So it seems to be a bit of a portmanteau of the real word azoic, “unliving”, and an Aldiss invention, zoiaxic, “central to life”. (Perhaps just a little too abstruse, that one.)

So it’s likely that, having just reread the Helliconia novels, I was primed to remember Aldiss’s nosthedony when I most recently looked at the arrowhead in the photograph at the head of this post. It has sat on a shelf just behind me for twenty-odd years, and I pick it up and turn it over and smile from time to time. It’s a piece of stone technology which was given to me as a gift by a nice lady who staffed the front desk in the Thunder Bay Museum, back in 1980. She had been given it, as a child, by someone who had found it locally. It seems to be an Adena projectile point, fashioned from chert—at least a thousand years old, and made in a style that originated with the Mound Builders in the Ohio River valley. So it was at the edge of Adena distribution, up there in Northwestern Ontario—perhaps at the end of a chain of trading. Someone made it, perhaps several people used it, someone lost it or discarded it. A millennium or so later, someone found it, and passed it on to a young Canadian girl of Scottish descent. Who in later life passed it on to a Scottish medical student who had expressed an interest in local history. And at some time before it got to me, someone tried to drill a hole in the stem, perhaps to make it into a pendant. So to me it’s the type specimen of Aldiss’s nosthedony—an artefact freighted with pleasing connections to people who lived before me.

I think we’re supposed to understand nosthedony as a sort of counterpart to nostalgia. Nostalgia comes from Greek nostos, “a return home”, and algos, “pain”. As its etymology suggest, it was originally used to designate a severe kind of home-sickness, and then mutated into its current meaning, associated with a regretful longing for past times. By contrast, Aldiss’s nosthedony combines nostos with hedone, “pleasure”—so it’s a pleasure derived from things in the past.

Nostos hasn’t given us many other English words, apart from those derived from nostalgia. Nostomania is nostalgia in an obsessive form. And nostos is occasionally used in English to designate a story about a homecoming, but particularly the homecoming of Odysseus and the other heroes of the Trojan War.

We’re likewise short on words derived from hedone. Anhedonia is the miserable state of being unable to take pleasure from one’s life. Hedonism started out as a philosophical term, in which pleasure was regarded as the chief source of good, and has evolved to mean pleasure-seeking behaviour, as practised by a hedonist. Things that relate to pleasure are hedonic, and an instrument that measures pleasure is a hedonometer. (This last one turns up as an impossible object, used to poke fun at philosophical hedonism.)

That’s a pretty poor haul of words related to nosthedony—but I hope you can take pleasure from the word itself.



anti-agathic: serving to prevent death; a drug that has this function

Original publications of Cities In Flight, Blish

This is a science fiction word. It was coined during the 1950s by James Blish as a key concept for his Cities in Flight series of novels, to designate the drugs that his characters took to give them potential immortality, allowing them to survive the long periods of time required for flights between the stars. I’ve discussed Blish’s writing style and his Cities in Flight novels in a previous post.

Anti-agathic drugs were such a useful concept that Blish’s word leaked into general science-fictional use, being picked up and reused over the years by such diverse talents as Harlan Ellison and Sheri S. Tepper. But there’s a puzzling problem with this word’s etymology, given that it was coined by a man as well-read as Blish. Agathos is Greek for “good”, and was also used to mean “noble”, “righteous” and “wise”, among other things—these are the pleasant connotations of the now-unfashionable girl’s name, Agatha. An agathodemon is a good spirit, and something that fosters goodness is agathopoietic. Agathism is the doctrine that all things tend toward goodness—to be contrasted with the technical meaning of optimism, which maintains that things are already as good as they can be (that is, optimal).

So in etymological terms, an anti-agathic drug would be one that opposed goodness, which is certainly not the literal meaning Blish offers. If Blish was looking for an etymologically sound name for an “anti-death” drug, he should have used the Greek word for death, thanatos. Something pertaining to death is thanatic; the study of death is thanatology; euthanasia is a gentle death; and athanasy is a state of immortality. Poul Anderson used the word antithanatic in his novel World Without Stars (1967), to designate the sort of drugs Blish was talking about. But by that time, Blish’s word anti-agathic had already enjoyed a decade of currency, so Anderson’s more etymologically defensible alternative never took hold.

So I’ve often puzzled over what led Blish to choose the word he did, and wondered if Blish was making some sort of sly joke with the name. It’s clear from the novels that he didn’t consider his anti-agathics to be an undiluted benefit to humankind, either at the individual level or at the societal level—individuals become bored and jaded with their over-long lives, society is split between the haves and have-nots because the anti-agathics are rare and expensive. Might the “not good” etymology have been an obscure little nod in that direction?

Or did Blish just get the word wrong through carelessness, haste or lack of interest? There’s certainly precedent for that. In The Triumph Of Time he consistently rendered the Norse mythological Ginnungagap as “Ginnangu-Gap”, giving it a vaguely Japanese feel. (And if you do an internet search on ginnangu-gap you’ll turn up almost nothing but Blish quotes and references.)

So during my recent rereading of Blish’s novels, I decided I’d dig a little more deeply into  Blish’s usage of the word, to see if I could tease out what he was up to when he coined it. But that turns out to less straightforward than you might think. Although the word anti-agathic appears throughout all the Cities in Flight novels, that’s no guide to when Blish first introduced the word and the concept, because the stories have a complicated publication history involving multiple layers of revision.

At the core of the series are the two earliest novels, Earthman, Come Home (1955) and They Shall Have Stars (1956). Each of these is constructed from a series of short stories—Earthman, Come Home is put together from “Okie” (1950), “Bindlestiff” (1950), “Sargasso of Lost Cities” (1953) and “Earthman Come Home” (1953); They Shall Have Stars is formed from the interleaving of “Bridge” (1952) and “At Death’s End” (1954). These original short stories were revised by Blish to form a more coherent and consistent structure when he assembled them into the novels. And then there was another round of revision when the first two novels were combined with two more, The Triumph of Time (1958)* and A Life For The Stars (1962), to form an omnibus edition entitled Cities in Flight (1970).

So the only way to judge exactly what Blish was up to when he coined this word is to go back to the six short stories in their original published form, and to read through them in order. That’s what I’ve just done.

The first story, “Okie”, appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950. The original version contains no mention of anti-agathic drugs or of the characters’ long lifespans. Passages relating to anti-agathics and their effects, which appear in the corresponding section of Earthman, Come Home, were obviously added for internal consistency with later parts of the novel.

The second story, “Bindlestiff”, appeared in the December 1950 edition of Astounding. And it produces a surprise:

“Our assays show […] the presence of certain drugs in your jungle—drugs which are known to be anti-agapics—”
“Sorry, I mean that, used properly, they cure death.”

Blish’s first ever mention of anti-death drugs uses a different word from the one that he’s now remembered for! The term anti-agapic is used consistently throughout the short story, but was revised to anti-agathic for the novel. This is another etymologically inexplicable choice—agape is Greek for “brotherly love” (to be contrasted with eros, “erotic love”). But it may be the solution to a puzzle that I’ve only just become aware of, through the miracle of Google—why an “immortality serum” that featured in the “Deathwalker” episode of the science fiction TV series Babylon 5 was called an anti-agapic rather than an anti-agathic.

And if we compare a passage from “Bindlestiff” with the corresponding section of the novel, we also see how Blish’s ideas are still evolving. Here’s the original short story:

Less than a two-thousandth of one percent of our present population can get the treatment now, and an ampoule of any anti-agapic, even the most inefficient ones, can be sold for the price the seller asks.

And the revised version in the omnibus edition of Cities in Flight:

Less than a two-thousandth of one per cent of our present population can get the treatment now, and most of the legitimate trade goes to the people who need life-extension the most—in other words, to people who make their living by traveling long distances in space. The result is that an ampule [sic] of any anti-agathic, even the least efficient ones, that a spaceman thinks he can spare can be sold for the price the seller asks.

At the time he wrote “Bindlestiff”, Blish was obviously still feeling his way towards the central role that his anti-agathics would play for his space-travelling characters.

“Bridge” (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1952) contains no mention of anti-death drugs—it’s concerned with the very early days of Blish’s imagined future history, and concentrates on the development of his fictional star-drive.

“Sargasso of Lost Cities” appeared in a short-lived, luridly covered, large-format magazine, Two Complete Science-Adventure Books, in the Spring 1953 edition, and picked up the story of “Okie” and “Bindlestiff”. And, once again, Blish uses the word anti-agapic rather than anti-agathic:

“[…] our stock of anti-agapics is […] adequate for the city, but with little left over to sell to someone else.”

So this is the story in which Blish establishes that his longevity drugs are an essential resource for the inhabitants of his space-faring cities.

“Earthman Come Home” (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1953), which follows on from the events of “Sargasso of Lost Cities”, brings another surprise:

But when death yielded to the anti-athapic drugs, there was no longer any such thing as a “lifetime” in the old sense.

Anti-athapic! This new variant seems to lack any sense at all. The nearest I can find in my Classical Greek dictionary is athaptos, “unburied”, but an “anti-athaptic” would be something that countered the state of being unburied.

Finally, in “At Death’s End” (Astounding Science Fiction, May 1954), Blish uses the word anti-agathic:

So what we’re look for now is not an antibiotic—an anti-life drug—but an anti-agathic, an anti-death drug.

Cover of Earthman Come Home, James BlishAnd it’s this third and final variant that Blish adopted, for reasons known only to himself, as the definitive term for his anti-death drugs, when he came to combine and revise four of these short stories (none of which had originally used the word in this form) into the novel Earthman, Come Home.

So I have to throw my hands in the air and acknowledge that Blish just seems to have plain made up some vaguely Greek-sounding names for his anti-death drugs, and evidently didn’t try to keep track of his coinings from one story to the next. But at the time of revision, Blish must have noticed that he’d used three different words in four different stories, and presumably he was aware that he had no sensible etymology to defend even his final choice. He seems to have left us a hint to that effect, in a couple of lines of dialogue he added to the ending of They Shall Have Stars when it was first published in 1956. The lines don’t appear in either of the original short stories that were combined to make the novel:

“[…] Do you also know what an anti-agathic is?”
“No,” Helmuth said. “I don’t even recognize the root of the word.”

And that seems a perfect note to end on.

* The publication history is further complicated by the fact that The Triumph of Time was entitled A Clash of Cymbals in its British edition.

Quotation Marks

Air quotes

The quotation mark has its origin in Europe in the centuries before printing, when documents were copied by hand. It started out as something called a diple. That word comes from Greek diplous, “double”, and a diple was, at its simplest, a line bent in half to form an arrowhead, like this: >.

Diples were drawn pointing inwards from the margins, to indicate noteworthy text. Sometimes a single diple pointed inwards from the outer margin of the page; sometimes diples appeared in both margins:

>      noteworthy text     <

And because the copyists were usually monks, “noteworthy text” was often synonymous with “a quotation from the Bible”.

With the advent of printing, diples caused the printers problems. First of all, printing in the margins was awkward to do, so the diple symbol was often moved into the body of the printed text. Secondly, the printers didn’t have a piece of type that looked like a diple. So they pressed the humble comma into doing double duty as a diple substitute. To avoid any confusion with its usual role, they did various things to this diple/comma, sometimes in combination:

  • Doubled it
  • Raised it from the baseline
  • Inverted it

(This last practice gave rise to the quotation mark’s alternative name in English—inverted commas.)

At the same time as they were experimenting with ways of replacing the diple, printers were also generalizing its use—rather than marking out quotations from the Bible, the new quotation marks were used to indicate all quoted text.

After all the experimentation had shaken down, Europe found itself with five different ways of arranging commas into quotation marks. The first was to open the quotation with a couple of commas on the baseline, and to close with a pair of raised, inverted commas:

Quote variant 1That’s standard practice in much of Eastern Europe, as well as Denmark, Germany and Iceland.

The second was to open with raised inverted commas, and to close with raised commas:

Quote variant 2That’s a familiar form for English speakers, and it has been adopted by a number of other languages, but it’s rare in Europe.

These two styles each have a variant that simply disposes of the inverted commas and uses ordinary commas instead. In parts of Eastern Europe the quotation is closed with a pair of ordinary raised commas:

Quote variant 4The same style is used in Dutch.

And in Finland, Poland and Sweden, the opening quotation marks look just like the closing marks:Quote variant 3The fifth style was championed by French and Italian printers. It originally featured a pair of mirror-image commas to open the quote, and a pair of regular commas to close it, both sets of commas raised half-way from the baseline.

Early guillemetsIt was visually pleasing, because it eliminated the large areas of white space created above or below the doubled commas in the other styles, but it did require a new character (the reversed comma) to be added to the printer’s font. Perhaps the precedent of creating a new character shook this style loose from the constraints of the original character set, because (unlike the other styles) it continued to evolve in appearance. It eventually turned into the set of angled brackets that are the fifth major quotation marks used in European languages—the guillemets, supposedly named after their creator, Guillaume, who is otherwise obscure.

GuillemetsAs well as French and Italian, the guillemets are used by Russian, Norwegian, Greek and all the languages of the Iberian peninsula.

Some countries admit two different styles of quotation mark. In Germany and parts of Eastern Europe, reversed guillemets are seen as an alternative to the standard quotation marks, though they seem to be used only in decorative text in Germany.

Reversed guillemetsQuite early in the development of quotation marks, British printers found another solution to the awkward expanse of white page that appears above or below double quotation marks—they used single quotation marks instead.

Single quotesIt’s a style that has persisted to the present day, with many British publishing houses using single quotation marks; British newspapers and magazines tend to use double quotes, however. And in the United States, double quotes are standard.

In English, if single quotation marks are standard, a quote-within-a-quote takes double marks; if double marks are used, the nested quote takes single marks. (Other languages vary in their approach to nested quotations—some simply repeat the same style of quotation mark; some switch to single marks; and some switch between guillemets and commas.)

The only problem for the British single quotation mark is that the closing quote is identical to the apostrophe, a punctuation mark used to signal either possession or omitted letters. But it’s usually pretty clear from context whether the reader has encountered a closing quote or an apostrophe.Apostrophe and quotes

So all was well … until the invention of the typewriter. The English keyboard economized on keys by using the same character for opening and closing quotes—symmetrical vertical strokes that came as single or double options, with the single quote doing double duty as an apostrophe.

Double straight quotesSingle straight quotesThese symmetrical quotation marks (called “straight quotes”) had never existed until they were invented to address the mechanical limitations of the typewriter. They carried over into the limited ASCII character set used by teletypes and early computers, and are still a standard feature of computer keyboards today, long after the mechanical and digital limitations that led to their creation have gone.

Manual typewriter keyboard
Click to enlarge
This is the keyboard of the manual typewriter I used to write my first published short story, back in the 1970s. The quotation marks and apostrophe are nowadays in different places on computer keyboards, but still the same “straight” style.

So—it’s a little awkward to insert proper opening and closing quotation marks when all you’ve got on your keyboard is straight quotes. I’m typing this with straight quotes at the moment, but you should be seeing proper opening and closing double quotation marks when you look at this web page. The web software I’m using is automatically converting the straight quotes I’m typing into what computer guys call “smart quotes”—actually just standard quotation marks, the only smart thing about them being that the software is working out whether to use an opening or closing quote according to the position in the text.

Trouble is, the software can get it wrong. In particular, if it sees a single straight quotation mark preceded by a space, it figures it’s looking at an opening quotation mark, and converts accordingly. So when I type:

the software works out that I mean:

Unfortunately, if I write a word with an initial apostrophe:

the software may still try to give me an opening quotation mark:

And I’ll need to go back and edit the document to get the apostrophe I want:

Now, software’s getting smarter. My web software seems to have become smarter in the last year and a half—it’s messing up my apostrophes and quotation marks much less often than it used to, because it now seems to be able to recognize common words that start with apostrophes. Whereas my old Microsoft Office 2007 is utterly steadfast in its opposition to the concept of an initial apostrophe.

So that’s inconvenient. But it also seems to have convinced some people that initial apostrophes should look like inverted commas, which is a little worrying. I’ve read a couple of books recently, from small publishing houses, in which all the initial apostrophes were upside-down—either they’re doing no proof-reading at all, or they’re convinced that their publishing software knows better than they do.

This problem reached an apotheosis, of sorts, with the American television comedy series, ’Til Death.* First of all, the writers seem to have had a misapprehension that “till” is an abbreviation of “until”—it’s not; it’s a perfectly regular word in its own right, with centuries of usage behind it. So that was bad. But then they believed their Autoformat settings:

At least for the first two years:

* Even my web authoring software couldn’t cope with ’Til. You’re seeing the apostrophe the right way up because I edited the html code by hand.

Perihelion: Part 2


perihelion: that point in the orbit of a planet, comet or other body at which it is closest to the sun

Earth at perihelion
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

Well, time flies. Back on January 4, when the Earth was at its closest to the sun, I started off to write about words relating to perihelion, and got side-tracked into writing about astronomical terminology instead. So now I’m just catching up with the original plan.

Perihelion, I reported last time, comes from the Greek prefix peri-, meaning “around” or “close”, and helios, “sun”. And its opposite is aphelion, which comes from the prefix apo-, meaning “off” or “away”.

Medicine, biology and architecture have a lot of peri- and apo- words, and I’m not going to try to list all that specialist vocabulary—I’ll stick to general vocabulary, albeit with an occasional diversion into the obscure.

A perimeter as literally a “measure around”, a periphery is a “carry around”, and a period is a “way around”. The last one was originally used to designate any kind of cycle in time—the four-year recurrence of the Olympic Games, the longer cycles of planetary movements. Later, by associations with cycles ending and beginning again, period acquired a sense of completion—you could talk about a time period that didn’t recur. In rhetoric people called a complete spoken sentence a period, and from there the word trickled down to eventually attach itself to the punctuation mark with which we end a written sentence.

A periscope lets you look around, peristrophe is the business of turning around, and a peripatus is a place where you can walk around—it gives us the verb peripatize, to walk around, and the adjective peripatetic, given to walking. Aristotle used to walk around the peripatus in the Lyceum while he was teaching—so the word Peripatetic is also used to designate his particular school of philosophy. A periapt is something “fastened around”—a personal ornament or charm. A peristyle is a row of columns around the outside of a building, or the space they enclose. Periegesis is the act of “guiding around”, so it’s a fancy word for a guidebook; while periplus is the act of “sailing around”, which gives us the name for a description of a sea voyage. The Periplus of The Erythryaean Sea is a first-century Greek text, describing the trading ports in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, which is a striking indication of how far-faring European navigators were in those days.

Periphrasis is “declaring around”—the rhetorical device of using a lot of words instead of a few. It has a Latin synonym in circumlocution. Someone given to periphrasis is a periphrast. (Calling your opponent in an argument “a bit of a periphrast” is a fine way to spread puzzled consternation.)

In a previous post I’ve already mentioned periscian, which means “around shadow”—it’s a designation for someone who lives within one of the polar circles, who therefore will have at least one day a year of continuous sunlight, during which their shadow will be cast successively in all directions as the sun sweeps around the horizon. Now it’s time to mention the periœci, from the Greek perioikos, “living around”—it’s a handy word for people or places that are on the same parallel of latitude, but on opposite meridians of longitude. (Pronounce it pɛrɪˈiːsaɪ.) It has an opposite, of sorts, in antœci, “living opposite”, which designates people or places on the same meridian of longitude but opposite parallels of latitude.

On, then, to apo-.

An apograph is something “written away”—an exact copy of a document, in the days of hand copying, which could be sent off somewhere else. Whereas an apology was something “spoken away”—an attempt to make something to go away by talking about it. It was originally a verbal defence of a person or idea. Someone who delivers such an apology is an apologist. The word apologist has retained the original sense of “defence”, whereas apology has become associated with contrition—a rich source of potential confusion over meanings. Apopemptic refers to something “sent away”—an apopemptic monologue is the Greek equivalent of a Latin valedictory address.

An apocalypse is literally the act of taking the cover off something (from Greek calyptra, “cover”)—a revelation, in other words. The biblical Book of Revelation is also called The Apocalypse Of John—and because the revelation the book’s author describes is about the end of the world, that’s what apocalypse has now come to mean. Staying on the religious theme a little longer, something that is apocryphal is literally “hidden away” or concealed (from Greek kryptos, “hidden”). When the Bible was first being assembled, Christian writings with unknown or dubious authorship were called Apocrypha. And because such writings could not be trusted or were deemed false, that’s what apocryphal now means. An apostle is someone who is “sent off”—a messenger; in the biblical sense, someone who carried the message of Christianity to other lands. An apostate is someone who “stands off”—who abandons a previously held belief. It used to have a female equivalent, an apostatrice, but that’s not much used nowadays. And to undergo an apotheosis is literally to “god off”—to become a god; something the Roman emperors did with monotonous regularity. Nowadays it can also mean some sort of transition to a heavenly afterlife or state of bliss.

An apothec is place where things are “stored away” (from Greek theke, “box”)—a storehouse or shop. So an apothecary used to be simply a shop-keeper; the word only later took on the sense of a person who sold drugs and potions specifically.

Apoplexy is a “striking off”—an old word for the sudden disability caused by a stroke. Something apotropaic causes a “turning away”—the word is used to designate a charm, spell, prayer or ceremony intended to ward off evil. And something aposematic causes a “warning off”—it’s the word for the bright colouration affected by some venomous creatures (or creatures just pretending to be venomous), and in that sense it’s the opposite of cryptic, which is used for colouration that serves to conceal the animal.

There are an impressive three rhetorical devices named using apo-. First there’s apophasis, which means “speaking away” or denial—it’s the trick of urging a course of action while pretending to deprecate it (“I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that …”). The splendid aposiopesis (“silence away”) is the name for the action of falling silent once the audience knows exactly what you mean, but before you actually have to say it (“And if that happens, only one course of action is open to us …”). And apostrophe (“turning away”) is the act of breaking off a speech in order to address some absent party (“And I would say this to our opponents …”). The punctuation mark, the apostrophe, has the same etymology. It was originally (and still is) used to indicate where a letter has been “turned away”—that is, missed out.

Finally, I can’t resist mentioning apophthegm, which comes from Greek phtheggomai, “to raise one’s voice”. It’s pronounced ˈæpəθɪm, and although it looks like it might be a synonym for some sort of coughing or spitting, it just means “a pithy saying”. If you’re given to pithy sayings, you are an apophthegmatist, and you apophthegmatize. Who wouldn’t aspire to such a thing?

That’s all for now. Maybe I’ll come back to words relating to the sun in another post. I hope before the next perihelion.

Magpies & Grasshoppers

I was trying to explain the content of this blog to someone the other day, and I said that it combined two states of mind, the magpie and the grasshopper—the magpie’s hoarding of appealing objects, the grasshopper’s leaping from place to place

And that, in a self-referential kind of way, got me thinking about the words magpie and grasshopper.

European magpie

The magpie is a common enough European bird, recognizable by its black-and-white plumage, long tail and rather sinister chuckling call. When I was child you never saw them in Dundee, but during a drive to the west one of them always seemed to show up just outside Glasgow. However, in the last decade they seem to have decided to colonize the Tay estuary, and nowadays I can usually hear a pair of them chortling from the rooftops just down the road.

Their acquisitive nature made them a metaphor for hoarders and collectors, and they gave their name to a 1970s children’s TV programme from Thames Television:

In those days, you were either a follower of the BBC’s staid Blue Peter, or ITV’s very slightly psychedelic Magpie. I was a Magpie kid, and nursed a mild case of the hots for Susan Stranks, who was in every way superior to Blue Peter’s Val Singleton, at least in my estimation.

The magpie was original just called a pie. The word was adopted from Old French pie, which in turn came from the Latin name for the bird, pica (preserved in the Eurasian magpie’s scientific name, Pica pica). If something was particoloured, like the bird, it was pieda word that’s now preserved pretty much single-handedly by the story known in English as “The Pied Piper of Hamelin“. The mysterious piper in the mediaeval story wore a particoloured suit of clothes—in Robert Browning’s version:

His queer long coat from heel to head
Was half of yellow and half of red

The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842)

The variation piebald has survived better, in application to particoloured horses (the “bald” bit coming from a very old usage, designating a horse with a white blaze on its forehead).

Some time around the turn of the sixteenth century, there seems to have been a vogue for applying given names to common bird species: so we had a Jenny wren, a Robin redbreast, a Jack daw, a Tom tit … and a Margaret pie. Shakespeare disconcertingly turned this into maggot-pie in Macbeth, but the version that persisted was Mag pie. Eventually (like Jack daw), the old name of the bird was forgotten, and it became just plain magpie.

Its Latin name, pica, is a medical term, designating a desire to eat something that isn’t normally considered food (a reference to the magpie’s supposedly indiscriminate appetite). Under the umbrella of pica fall such practices as coprophagy (eating faeces), geophagy (eating earth), ryphophagy (eating “filth”, which I suppose could involve either or both of the preceding), onychophagy (nail biting) and trichophagy (eating hair). This last practice can give rise to a fibrous mass of undigested hair sitting in the stomach, called a trichobezoar or just bezoar.

Bezoar comes from Persian pad-zahr, “against poison”—the original Persian bezoars were concretions taken from the guts of various ruminants, which were held to prevent poisoning if they were dropped into a cup before drinking from it. The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the most prized bezoar was the lapis bezoar orientale, taken from Persian wild goats; inferior products were the lapis bezoar occidentale, from the Peruvian llama, and the German bezoar, from the chamois. And who knows? Maybe the large surface area of those porous concretions really did absorb a bit of poison.


Grasshoppers, crickets and locusts tend to look alike and behave alike, and together they make up the insect order Orthoptera, “straight wings”. So if you’re not sure whether you have a grasshopper, a cricket or a locust in your hand, you can just nod wisely and call it an orthopter or an orthopteran. Something that resembles an orthopter is orthopterous or orthopteroid.

Grasshopper does what it says on the tin, etymologically speaking, and there’s not much more to add, beyond saying that grasshopperish and grasshoppery are both words meaning “like a grasshopper”, while grasshoppering is living improvidently, like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper.

Cricket is imitative in origin—something that goes krik! in the grass. Something like a cricket, or like the noise a cricket makes, is crickety. As far as we know, the insects have nothing to do with the game of cricket, which instead might possibly derived from a kind of footstool called a cricket, and a ball game called “stool-ball”, which (you’ve guessed it) involved throwing a ball at a stool. Then again, it might not.

Locust is from the Latin locusta, which was a word applied to locusts and grasshoppers, but also to lobsters and other crustaceans. Something pertaining to a locust is either locustal, locustian or locustical, so you’re spoiled for choice there.

From locusta and its Latin application to lobsters, the Spanish got langosta (a lobster or crayfish) and its diminutive langostino, by which they designate the small lobster Nephrops norvegicus, otherwise known in English as the Norwegian lobster or the Dublin Bay prawn. The French went down essentially the same etymological route, using langouste for the crayfish and langoustine for the Norwegian lobster. Langoustine is a name that seems to turn up fairly regularly on menus in the UK these days, except when they’re fried in batter and served with tartare sauce, in which case they’re scampi—the plural of scampo, the Italian word for the Norwegian lobster.

The English word lobster also derives from Latin locusta, which was mangled in Old English to loppestre (presumably by someone quite hard of hearing). Lobstering is fishing for lobsters; lobsterish means “red faced”, like a cooked lobster; and to lobsterize is to walk backwards, in the way lobsters are said to do, by people who have never seen a lobster walking.

And I guess all of the above is as good an example as any, of how this blog tends to be both magpie- and grasshopper-minded.



serendipity: The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery

Staph aureus culture, antibiotic sensitivities
Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, University of Iowa

People like the word serendipity—there’s something cheerful and unexpected about that “-dipity” ending which makes them want to say it or write it, and so its original meaning has gradually eroded away. The definition above comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, but a quick search of the internet turns up a more compact version of the same thing:

Finding something good without looking for it

So merely happening on some money lying in the street nowadays counts as serendipity.

Which is a shame, because it used to mean something different, nuanced and more useful. The word was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, the Whig politician and author of the proto-Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto. And he wrote a famous letter to Horace Mann explaining its origin:

This discovery [a piece of useful information Walpole had chanced upon], indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have no better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand Serendipity?

Later in the same letter, Walpole condenses his definition of serendipity down to two words: “accidental sagacity”.

Unfortunately, Walpole’s derivation didn’t really match his definition. The three princes of the story were supremely observant and sagacious—forerunners of Sherlock Holmes, in fact. From clues along the roadside they deduced that a camel they had never seen was not only blind in one eye, but also lame, missing a tooth, carrying a load of honey on one side and butter on the other, and ridden by a pregnant woman. The accidental aspect in the story is minimal.

But what Walpole seems to have had in mind, with his “accidental sagacity”, seems to be pretty much what Louis Pasteur was talking about when he said:

Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.
(In the realms of observation chance favours only the prepared mind.)

From a lecture at the University of Lille (1854)

So serendipity is an unlooked-for discovery, for sure, but the sort that requires a degree of observation and thought to appreciate its value. Alexander Fleming‘s discovery of penicillin is perhaps the archetype of that kind of serendipity in science—the chance observation that an unwanted fungus colony on an agar plate had killed the staphylococci growing around it. Fleming’s sagacity converted that accident into a medical revolution, with the introduction of antibiotics. The event is commemorated by the Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award, an award for a “person or organisation that built a thriving business on an idea that originated in the most unexpected or surprising way”.

Serendipity languished, rarely used, for two centuries after Walpole coined it—then it seems to have been suddenly discovered in the 1940s, and its popularity has ramped steadily ever since, as its Google Ngram shows:

Along the way, it accreted a new meaning, which has run in parallel with Walpole’s original usage, and with the increasingly common “finding something good unexpectedly” interpretation. Margot Lee Shetterly put it this way:

Serendipity happens when a well-trained mind looking for one things encounters something else: the unexpected.

Hidden Figures (2016)

The medical educator Julius Comroe, Jr. put it differently:

Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.

Quoted by Eldon Taylor, What Does That Mean? (2010)

The idea here is that it’s not merely a chance encounter, seized on sagaciously, but that serendipity happens when you’re looking for something else. Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays falls into this category—he was experimenting with electron beams in a partially evacuated glass tube, when he noticed that a fluorescent screen across the room lit up when he activated his apparatus. Röntgen gave up on the electron investigations he had planned, and devoted himself to studying the mysterious “X” rays that his apparatus was generating. He then experienced another moment of the same kind of serendipity. During a series of experiments in which he tried to block the penetrating X-rays from reaching his fluorescent screen, he was reaching out to place a piece of lead in the ray path, when he inadvertently got his hand in the way instead, and caught sight of the silhouette of the bones of his hand projected on to the screen.

The etymology of serendipity is pretty clear from Walpole’s letter—he took the three princes’ country of origin, Serendip, and appended the suffix -ity, which we use to generate the name of a state or condition from its adjective. So we have purity, the state of being pure; inferiority, the state of being inferior; suavity, the state of being suave, and so on. The suffix came to us from French -ité, which in turn came from Latin -itas, both of which do the same job as the English version. We have a unique case in which both the English and Latin versions are current—gravity and gravitas, performing slightly different functions.

Cover of The View From SerendipSerendip was not a mythical place—it was the island we now call Sri Lanka. (In 1977 Arthur C. Clarke, who lived for most of his life in Sri Lanka, published a collection of essays entitled The View From Serendip, dealing with, among other things, the serendipity of his arrival on the island.) The original Persian was Sarandip, which came ultimately from Sanskrit Simhaladvipa, “island of the Sinhala people”. The Greek version was Selediba, and that seems to be the origin of the name Ceylon, by which Sri Lanka was previously known.

The Tamil people of Sri Lanka use the name Eelam, which has various competing and abstruse etymologies. Tamil Eelam is the name given to an aspirational independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

A Sinhalese name for the island was Tamraparni, variously translated as a reference to copper-coloured leaves or red trees. The Greeks borrowed that one as Taprobana, which found its way into Ptolemy’s Geographia in the second century, and so enjoyed some currency in mediaeval Europe.

Ptolemy's map of Taprobana

Arthur Clarke borrowed it (as Taprobane) for the name of a fictional equatorial island in the Indian Ocean, in his novel The Fountains Of Paradise.

And finally there was Lanka, the name of the island used in classical Indian epic poems. With the Sanskrit honorific prefix Sri, it was adopted as the name of the newly independent republic in 1972.

Perihelion: Part 1


perihelion: that point in the orbit of a planet, comet or other body at which it is closest to the sun

Earth at perihelion
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

Not to be confused with the parhelion, which I wrote about last month. Today (4 January 2017), the Earth is at perihelion, its closest to the sun, a mere 98% of its average distance. On 3 July 2017, it will be at aphelion, its farthest from the sun, 2% farther than average. In the short term, perihelion and aphelion occur at pretty much the same time of year, year on year, so the southern hemisphere has its summer when the Earth is close to the sun, and its winter when we’re farthest away. In the northern hemisphere that seasonal rhythm is reverse, and it makes the northern summers just a little cooler, and the northern winters just a little warmer, than their counterparts in the southern hemisphere.

Perihelion & aphelion
Click to enlarge
Prepared using Celestia

If you want the dates of Earth’s perihelion and aphelion for the next few years, you can find a table here, confirming that they’ll hang about in early January and early July for the rest of the century.

Perihelion comes from Greek peri-, signifying “around” or “close” and helios, “sun”. Aphelion instead uses the Greek prefix apo-, meaning “off” or “away”. Many folk pronounce the word to keep the “ap” separate from the “helion”, which seems fair enough. But the Oxford English Dictionary, conscious of the way the Classical Greek apo- would turn to aph- when it ran up against the “h” in helion , tells us to pronounce the “ph” as “f”. So it’s əˈfiːlɪən. The “ap-helion” crowd, unaware of the Classical Greek argument, look down on the “afelion” crowd, thinking they just don’t understand how the word is formed. And the “afelion” crowd look down on the “ap-helion” crowd, thinking they just don’t understand how the word is formed. So if you’re ever called upon to discuss an aphelion (I know this happens to me from time to time), your best bet is to duck the issue and let someone else pronounce it first.

Appropriately enough, both words were coined by Johannes Kepler, the man who first realized that the planets moved around the sun in elliptical orbits. He formed the words by analogy with two older words, perigee and apogee, which come from Greek gea, “the earth”. Astronomers before Kepler used these words to designate the points in a planet’s orbit when it was closest too and farthest from the Earth, at a time when all the planets were assumed to be going around the Earth, rather than the sun. Nowadays, they’re used only for things that are really in orbit around the Earth—the moon and artificial satellites.

These two pairs of words have formed the basis for many other, newer coinings, according to which object a body orbits around. For orbits around stars other than our sun, we have periastron and apastron, from Greek astron, “star”; for orbits around the galaxy, we have perigalacticon and apogalacticon, from the Greek galaxias, “the Milky Way”.

For orbits in general, there’s periapsis and apoapsis, which together take a Greek plural, and are called the apsides. The original Greek was aphis, “fastening”, a word that was also applied to the curved sections of wood that were fastened together to form the rim of a wheel. (In English, these are called felloes, in case you’re wondering.) So that’s a nice designation for the sections of the orbit that are nearest to and farthest from the centre. The apse of a church has the same derivation, because of its curved shape. For those who aren’t Classical Greek wheelwrights, there are modern equivalents to the apsidal names that make the meaning more obvious, at the expense of being hybrid wordspericentre and apocentre. Perifocus and apofocus are also sometimes used, and are more mathematically correct—an object in an elliptical orbit is moving around one focus of the ellipse, not its centre.

So really, once we know the words for the apsides and their synonyms, which are completely general terms, we shouldn’t need any more specific apsidal words. That hasn’t stopped people inventing them, though.

As soon as we started thinking about sending spacecraft to the moon, the words pericynthion and apocynthion were contrived. And I mean contrived—cynthia means “of Cynthos”, the mountain on the island Delos where the moon goddess Artemis / Diana was said to have been born. So the name Cynthia has a long history in English of being used as a poetic reference to the moon. But why this rather convoluted derivation was preferred to the much more straightforward periselene and aposelene, from Greek selene, “moon”, is anyone’s guess. But the –cynthions became the preferred terms of the Apollo program, and the –selenes languished and were rarely used. A pair of hybrid Greek/Latin words was also invented that made more immediate sense—perilune and apolune, from the Latin luna, “moon”. An effort was made to press two pairs of words into service with different meanings—the –lunes for spacecraft launched from the moon, and the –cynthions for spacecraft launched from elsewhere. But it doesn’t seem to have ever been a consistent distinction. The Google Ngram for these words shows an interesting double spike—one in the ’60s and ’70s, during the Apollo missions, and one in the ’90s when the moon was revisited by unmanned spacecraft after a decade-long hiatus.

When we come to the individual planets (and Pluto) you’ll find a neat list being cut-and-pasted around the internet. It has the merit of pairing Greek versions of the planet names with Greek prefixes, avoiding the dreaded creation of hybrid words from mixed Greek and Latin roots. For each body, simply combine peri- or apo- with a suffix from the following list.

  • -hermion (Hermes, Greek equivalent of Mercury)
  • -cytherion (Cytheræa, “of Cythera”, another name for Aphrodite,  Greek equivalent of Venus)
  • -areion (Ares, Greek equivalent of Mars)
  • -zene (Zeno-, a combining form of Zeus, Greek equivalent of Jupiter)
  • -krone (Shortened form of Kronos, Greek equivalent of Saturn)
  • -uranion (Uranus is a Latinized version of Greek Ouranos)
  • -poseidion (Poseidon, Greek equivalent of Neptune)
  • -hadion (Hades, Greek equivalent of Pluto)

Neat, eh? Trouble is, almost none of them are words in active use by scientists and engineers. If you search the full text of all the astrophysics papers held in the SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System, you won’t find a single occurrence of pericytherion, apocytherion, perizene, apozene, periuranion, apouranion, periposeidion, apoposeidion, perihadion or apohadion—tens of thousands of papers, two hundred years, not one occurrence of any of them. Nor will you find them mentioned in any of the books scanned by Google Ngram Viewer. That’s remarkable, isn’t it? Where on earth do these unused words come from, if not from books and scientific literature? They come from Wikipedia—some time in the early 2000s it seems that someone at Wikipedia just made up a list of nice Greek words, and they’ve been echoing around the internet ever since, without a single citation in the scientific literature to support them.

So what words are actually being used? There are a couple of citations for -hermion, but they are hugely outweighed by periherm and apoherm (and a condensed equivalent, apherm)—the technical terms adopted by the scientists involved in the MESSENGER mission to Mercury. Although Venus has been orbited by several spacecraft, there seems to be no specific term relating to that planet, apart from very rare appearances of perivenus and apovenus, which seems to indicate a significant failure of imagination. For Mars, periareion and apoareion (or their condensed equivalents, periareon and apoareon) seem to be the words of choice across several missions. At Jupiter, perijove and apojove are the words actually in use (from Jove, a Latin alternative name for Jupiter), with a usage record going back to the early nineteenth century. Perijovium and apojovium are rare (and usually old) variants. For Saturn, perikrone and apokrone (or their equivalents perichrone and apochrone) have been in use since the turn of the millennium, but perisaturnium and aposaturnium have been used more often, with a history stretching back to the nineteenth century. Beyond that point in the solar system, it goes quiet. Periuranium was last used in 1922, and there are a couple of citations for perineptune and peripluto.

This is all very odd, if you think about. Orbits have various defining characteristics, and the pericentre is just one—there’s the orbit’s eccentricity and period, for instance, to pick a couple of easy ones. But we never talk about the “hermioeccentricity” or the “cytherioperiod”—one name is good enough for a given parameter, no matter where the orbit is. But the historical precedents of perihelion and perigee seem to have convinced (some) people that they need to find a new pericentre name for every kind of orbit that turns up.

As a case in point, there’s the fact that there are already two names in the scientific literature for “closest approach to a black hole”—peribothron (from Greek bothros, “hole or pit”) and perinigricon (apparently a double hybrid, combining the Greek prefix peri- and Greek suffix -icon with Latin niger, “black”). And another one crops up in fiction—physicist Geoffrey Landis (whom we last encountered when I wrote about human vacuum exposure) has written a science fiction story (you can read it here) which uses the word perimelasma, from the Greek melasma, “black spot”. I suppose it’s easier to defend the case for coming up with a fancy but pointless word in a work of fiction—it’s just unfortunate that Landis chose to use the name of a common skin condition.

Anyway, that’s enough for this time. I had planned on writing about words derived from peri- and apo-, and words derived from the sun, but got distracted by the sheer number of different kinds of named pericentres. So I’ll write about all those other words in Part 2.