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
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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.

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