Vocabulary for Interstellar Space Cadets


Happy Friday, dear readers! I hope you enjoyed part one of Anne’s guest post on the passive voice. Check back next week for part two.

This weekend marks the premiere of the movie, Interstellar. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been looking forward to this movie for ages. I was already excited about the underlying dystopian plot—but knowing that Kip Thorne consulted on the science in the film has nearly put my anticipation through the roof.

So, as the hours tick down, I thought I’d entertain you by exploring the etymology of three space-related words.

This word was first seen in English in the late 1300s in Chaucer’s poem, The House of Fame. It came from the Old French word, galaxie, which came from the Late Latin word, galaxias, meaning the Milky Way. That, in turn, came from the Greek expression, galaxias kyklos, which meant milky circle. In the mid-1800s, the scientific community began to use galaxy as a technical term to describe any independent system of stars, gas, and dust held together by gravitational attraction.

This word appeared in English in the early 1400s as nebule, meaning cloud or mist. It came from the Latin word, nebula, which literally described mist, vapor, smoke, or fog—and figuratively described darkness or obscurity. The Latin came from the Proto-Indo-European root, nebh-, meaning cloud. You can see the common ancestry when you look at some other languages, like the Sanskrit nabhas-, meaning vapor, cloud, mist, or fog; the Greek nephele or nephos, meaning cloud; the German Nebel, meaning fog; the Old English nifol, meaning dark and gloomy; or the Welsh niwl, meaning cloud or fog. Its use to describe a cloud of gas and dust in the night sky was first recorded around 1730.

This word came from the Old English planete, which came from the Old French word of the same spelling, which, in turn, came from the Late Latin word, planeta. The Latin came from the Greek planetes, from asteres planetai, which meant wandering stars and came from the word planashthai, meaning to wander. It’s possible that the Greek came from the Proto-Indo-European word, pele-, meaning flat or to spread. Originally, planet included the sun and the moon, but astronomy changed that. Its modern meaning to describe a world that orbits a star first appeared in the 1630s.

All right. I’m ready for the movie now! How about you?


Please note: Etymological information comes from a combination of the Oxford Dictionary of Etymological English and the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Image credit: Gemini Observatory

9 thoughts on “Vocabulary for Interstellar Space Cadets

  1. Thank you Suzanne,nebula and planet two very interesting words, We do use the word planet more often than Nebula, the fact it is called nabhas in Sanskrit , makes it more interesting for me.

  2. Fascinating! I love etymology!! And especially when it’s related to astronomy. I haven’t heard of the movie, though. The dangers of no tv… I’ll have to check it out!

    1. I love etymology too. And astronomy. But I must confess that the movie wasn’t as good as I was hoping. The science was fantastic, but the story was lacking substance.

  3. I’m pretty psyched by this film too. Apparently, the image of the black hole was made by subbing Thorne’s equations into the graphics software and it was the first time ever that they have been imaged according to actual physics. I hear they are going to publish their results in a scientific journal.

    1. Yeah, I heard about the paper too. Very cool stuff. The story in the movie didn’t really do it for me, but the visuals of the black hole were awesome. I could have happily watched that for two hours. 🙂

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