Word of the Week – Galaxy

Word of the Week – Galaxy

Did you know that galaxy is from the Greek word for milk? I didn’t! Given that our galaxy is the Milky Way though, I wasn’t terribly surprised. The original Greek phrase was in fact galaxias kyklos, meaning “milky circle.” The term made its way into Latin, and from Latin to French, and from French to English by the 14th century.

By the mid 1800s, the term had become a bit more technical, meaning “the discrete stellar aggregate including the sun and all visible stars” rather than just “that milky white conglomerate up in the sky.” Around that same time, astronomers began to wonder if some of the things they could see through telescopes were in fact other galaxies…but it wasn’t until the 1920s that telescopes became powerful enough for them to be certain of it. So galaxy and Milky Way were interchangeable pretty much up until then.

I’ve always loved studying the night sky, though I am faaaarrrr from an expert. How about you? Do you enjoy astronomy?

Word of the Week – Utopia

Word of the Week – Utopia

I daresay we all know what I mean when I say the word Utopia, right. It’s a perfect society. We all know it’s pretty much mythical, much like the one Socrates outlines in “The Republic.” And we probably also know the word was coined by Thomas Moore when he wrote a book with that title.

But did you know that he chose that title and name for his society based on the Greek word for “nowhere”? I didn’t! That makes it really cool though, doesn’t it? That even in its name, we recognize that it does not–and cannot–exist. He wrote, and hence coined the term for, Utopia in 1516, and it’s been a part of the English language to describe an ideal society since 1551.

What’s really interesting though is that many people didn’t understand the rather complicated Greek idiom that led to this word (I won’t get into it here) and thought that instead of meaning “nowhere” or “no place,” it was based on the Greek eu, meaning “good,” and that the word meant “good place.” Incorrect…but compelling enough that it’s why people created the word dystopian to be its supposed opposite!

Have you ever read Utopia? I haven’t yet, but my husband’s reading it now…

Word of the Week – Parable and Parabola

Word of the Week – Parable and Parabola

Did you ever pause to consider that parable and parabola come from the same root? I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it, until my husband brought it up the other day. He was talking about parables and used the adjective parabolic to describe it…and then paused and said, “Huh, that’s usually just used in the mathematical sense, but I bet parable and parabola are actually related, don’t you think?” I did! And they are.

Both words are from the Greek parabolē, which means “a comparison,” literally “a throwing beside” or “a juxtaposition.” The word moved from Greek to Latin and hence down the line into the Latinate languages. Interestingly, common (vulgar) Latin even adopted it to mean “word,” which is where we ultimately get parler in French for “to speak.” In English, the word parable has been used to describe stories with a lesson since the 1200s.

Now parabola, the mathematical term used to describe the open bell-like curve formed when a plane cuts through a cone on an angle parallel to one side. It was named by Apollonius in 210 BC, but at the time it was the same Greek word used for the stories, since it was a juxtaposition, a throwing beside of a plane and a cone. Keeping in mind that mathematical terms were still presented in their original Greek and Latin for quite a lot of modern history, it’s not then surprising that our English word parabola–spelled with a different ending to differentiate it from the “story” meaning–dates only to the 1570s. The concept is of course far older, but the date is for the word itself as an English word.

As for parabolic, it was actually used to mean “figurative, pertaining to a parable” from the mid-1500s and didn’t get applied to the mathematical shape until the 1700s. So totally fine to use that one either way. 😉

Word of the Week – Postmodern

Word of the Week – Postmodern

Today’s Word of the Week actually came in as a special request…and I admit it’s a word I’ve always just shrugged off too. What, exactly, do people mean when they toss around postmodern or postmodernism in their conversations? Turns out, the word can mean different things depending on what it’s applied to…and hilariously, one of the strictest definitions is probably opposite what the speakers actually mean.

So to understand postmodernism we first have to look at modernism. We all know what modern means, of course. But modernism was actually coined by Jonathan Swift in a letter to fellow-writer Pope in 1737.

I wish you would give orders against the corruption of English by those scribblers who send us over [to Ireland] their trash in prose and verse, with abominable curtailings and quaint modernisms. [Swift to Pope, July 23, 1737]

What he means here as modernism is “a deviation from the classical manner,” in this case of writing. So modernism is the tossing out of convention and its rules and creating whatever you please.

Postmodernism, then? Here’s the funny part. In architecture, it means rejecting that modernism that eschews the classical rules and actually RETURNING to the classical form. But in literature (and philosophy in general), it instead takes it a step further. In postmodern thought, you’re not just rejecting the rules, you’re saying that there can objectively be no rules, because there’s no objective truth. Everything is subjective.

Where do you come down on classical vs. modern vs. postmodern? Me…I’m a classical girl through and through. 😉

Word of the Week – Smithereens

Word of the Week – Smithereens

My mom sent me this one, so of course I had to look into it! I found the explanation pretty quick, but nevertheless enlightening, so let’s take a look!

Smithereens dates from 1810 and has always meant “small fragments.” No surprise there. But where does it come from? This is the interesting part. =) The smither part we know–it’s directly from the Irish Gaelic smidirin, which is itself a diminutive of smiodar, which means “fragment.”

So what about that -een? Is that where the “small” comes from? Etymologists can only take a good guess at that part, but their theory is that the -een was indeed applied as another diminutive, quoting names such as “Colleen” as evidence that it was done frequently in the Gaelic language. In my imagination I can see someone looking at minuscule fragments and deciding it was so small, it wasn’t just a smither, but a smithereen. 😉

Word of the Week – Dunce

Word of the Week – Dunce

I looked up the word dunce during my marathon writing session for the final book in the Secrets of the Isles trilogy, just to make sure I hadn’t been using it for years when I shouldn’t have been (because those sneak in!), and I was fascinated at what I learned! It had certainly been around long enough for my 1906-set story, but I had no idea its history was so interesting. So naturally, I have to share.

Dunce is actually taken from the name of John Duns Scotus, and before it was dunce, it was actually Duns’ man. So who, you ask, is John Duns Scotus? He was a Scottish scholar of philosophy and theology who lived from 1265-1308 and whose followers ran the universities just before the Reformation. By the 1520s, people were lashing out against the medieval theology and “knowledge,” and John Duns Scotus had become their archetype for the academic who was so obstinately focused on minutia that they failed to see larger truths. By the 1570s, dunce meant “ignoramus, dullard, dolt,” especially dull-witted students. The dunce cap that we all recognize from historical classroom scenes dates from around 1792.

Whenever I come across a word like this taken from someone’s name, I always shudder. Something to avoid in life: that sort of legacy!