A couple weeks ago, I had a message from a reader asking me to do a feature on arctic and antarctic, because he heard they meant “near the bear” and “away from the bear” and thought, “Nah, that can’t be right!”
I love that I’m the word nerd that people turn to for these questions. =D
And if you look strictly at the modern definition of arctic or antarctic, knowing that they refer to the areas around the poles of the planet, you may indeed scratch your head at the idea of bears. I mean, there are polar bears in the north, sure, but…is that really enough to call a whole area after them?
No…but. But it really is after “the bear.” That is THE bear, however, not just a bear. “The Bear” in the constellations–Ursa Major!
Ursa Major, you see, is seen in the northerly sector of the sky and is in fact the best known constellation that goes around the pole. And the Ancient Greek word for bear and for this constellation was arktikos. From ancient days on up, the “region of the north” was called for this constellation, and hence the far-southerly region on the opposite pole was named for being opposite. The word traveled from Ancient Greek to Latin to French and from there into English by the 1300s.
It’s interesting to note that while that “k” sound is present in the original word, it had dropped out of the Latin and French versions and hence the English version too, for centuries. The “c” was inserted for that “k” in the 1550s, though it isn’t always pronounced even today. By the 1600s, it had taken on a metaphorical meaning of “cold, frigid.”