Saturday 29 July 2017

Solar System Etymologies

Having looked at the names of constellations and then individual stars, I thought perhaps having a look a little closer to home and examining the origins of the name of the bodies of the Solar System. Here the list covers the planets and their respective satellites working out from the sun. As an afterthought I've added a few of the dwarf planets. Note the list is not definitve.

MERCURY - the innermost planet and named by the Romans. Originally Mercurius was a the god of tradesmen and thieves, his name derived from merx or 'merchandise' and thus related to the modern 'market'.

VENUS - another from Roman mythology, she the goddess of beauty and love, particularly the physical variety. Indeed her name is derived from Proto-Indo-European wen meaning 'to desire'.

EARTH - considering this is our home, it has only been known as such since around 1400. This comes from the Proto-Indo-European er 'earth, ground' and comes from a time when our home was considered the centre of all things.

Luna - our moon, the name coming from Proto-Indo-European leuksna and its root leuk meaning 'light, brightness'.

MARS - another Roman god, although here the origins are questioned some think it derived from an Etruscan child god Maris while others point to Mawort ta war god. The name was also given to the red planet as it would have reminded them of the god of war. The Greeks knew the planet as Pyroeis 'the fiery'. It seems improbable to think the original name meant anything other than 'rage, anger, battle'.

Deimos - the smaller and out moon of Mars, named from the mythological son of Mars and Venus (or Ares and Aphrodite if looking at the Greek version) and the twin brother of Phobos. Demos is the Greek word for 'dread' and was the Greek god of terror.

Phobos - like his twin brother Deimos a mythological god and from the Greek phobos or 'fear'. Etymologically the sense had previously been 'flight', later as 'panic, fright', and all based on the Proto-Indo-European root bhegw 'to run'.

JUPITER - this can be traced to Proto-Indo-European dyeu-peter 'god father'. We can take this back further to dyeu 'to shine, heaven, god' along with peter 'father, male head of the household'. Similar meaning is seen in the Greek Zeus pater and Sanskrit Dyaus pitar

Amalthea - in mythology the foster-mother of Zeus, her name from the Greek for tender goddess.

Ananke - until 1975 this mon had been known as Jupiter XII. To confuse matter further for the previous years it was sometimes known as Adrastea, this name now given to another satellite and discussed below. Ananke, with a little help from Zeus, was the mother of the Moirai or Fates and her name comes from the Greek anankaie 'force, constraint' and most often 'necessity'.

Adrastea - formerly known as Jupiter XV and only discovered in 1979 when photographed by Voyager 2, thus making it the first natural satellite discovered by a spacefraft and not a telescope. Its name comes from the mythology foster mother of the Greek god Zeus, Adrasteia the Greek for 'inescapable'.

Callisto - discovered by Galileo Galilei it is the third largest moon in the solar system. Again a figure from mythology, she was a nymph or the daughter of King Lycaon, depending on which story you read, and takes her name from the Greek for 'most beautiful'.

Carme - named after the mythological Carme, mother of Britomartis (Zeus again playing a part), and named from the Greek word for 'shearer'.

Elara - known as Jupiter VII until 1975 and, for the previous twenty years, also known as Hera. It is named after the mother of the giant Tityos, she also the lover of (surprise, surprise) Zeus. The name means either 'angel' or 'messenger' depending upon which mythological story is read.

Europa - in mythology the daughter of the king of Tyre who, yes you guessed it, was another of Zeus' lovers but on the plus side she did give a name to the continent of Europe and a moon. Her name is comprised of two Greek words: eurus 'wide, broad' and opt 'eye, face, countenance'. Take from that whatever you like.

Ganymede - a Greek mythological character who did not father children with Zeus, although this was probably only because Ganymede was male. Yet Zeus, disguised as an eagle, did kidnap Ganymede and took him to Olympus where he served as cup-bearer. Mythology does record an erotic relationship between Zeus and Ganymede, this leading to the Latin form of Catamitus, itself the origin of the word 'catamite'. His name comes from the Greek ganymai 'to be glad' and medomai 'to think, to plan'.

Himalia - named after the nymph who bore three sons of ..... guess who? .... yes, by Zeus! Another not named until 1975, previously this was Jupiter VI. The name of Himalia probably comes from the Greek himalia meaning 'abundance of wheat meal'.

Io - no prizes for guessing who was sleeping with Io ...... yes, that Zeus fellow again Although he didn't seem overly grateful for the sexual favours as he turned her into a cow. Ancient Greek would have pronounced the name as EE-AW, although just where this name originates is unknown.

Leda - and known as Jupiter XIII until 1975, albeit not for long as it was only discovered the previous year. Greek mythology had her as, In what is becoming a somewhat monotonous mantra, a lover of Zeus. What Zeus (or Jupiter) lacked in commitment, he more than made up for in chat up lines for he appeared to Leda as a swan, falling into her arms to escape pursuit by an eagle (an everyday occurrence in Morrisons' car park). Her name is possibly an early Greek word for 'woman'.

Lysithea - named in 1975, previously known as Jupiter X or even Demeter. It is named after daughter of Oceanus who grew up to become one a lover of Zeus. Nothing is known of the origin of her name.

Metis - not named in 1975 but in 1983 as it was not discovered until 1979. It is named after Metis, the first wife of Zeus, whose name means 'wisdom, skill, craft'.

Pasiphae - named in 1975, formerly known as Jupiter VIII or Poseidon, it was discovered in 1908. It is named after the wife of Minos in Greek mythology, she also the mother of the Minotaur. Pasiphae is Greek from pas phaos and understood as 'wide shining'. (Note no Z-word here.)

Sinope - named in 1975, previously known as Jupiter IX or Hades, it was discovered in 1914 and the origins of her name are unknown. However we do know she was abducted by none other than Zeus. As the chief of the gods and all-powerful he was not stretching the truth when he promised to grant her anything she desired. She said she wished to remain a virgin all her life and Zeus was forced to grant her wish and ensure he failed at least once.

Thebe - named in 1983 after discovery by Voyager 1's flyby four years earlier, it had previously been known as Jupiter XIV, and named after a lover of Zeus. The origin of the name is unknown.

SATURN - takes the name of the Roman god of agriculture, whose name has variously been defined as from satu 'sowing', satis 'satisfaction', and stercus 'dung, manure'. Saturn's official moon count is 62, all but nine have names but we will content ourselves with a few examples.

Atlas - named after the figure from Greek mythology who holds the Earth on his shoulders for this moon also appears to support the rings of Saturn. The name has several suggested origins including Latin durus 'enduring'and Berber adrar 'mountain', and Proto-Indo-European telh 'uphold, support'.

Calypso - etymologically this is from Greek alypto 'to cover, hide, conceal', which fits with the myth of this nymph of Greek mythology detaining Odysseus for several years on the island of Ogygia.

Dione - named after the Titanesse of Greek mythology, this is essentially the feminine form of Zeus, itself from Djeus the Proto-Indo-European god of the daytime sky and also known as Dyeus ph-ter or 'sky father'.

Enceladus - ma,ed after the giant of Greek mythology, the name from the Greek enkeleuo meaning either 'to urge on' or 'to sound the charge'.

Epimetheus - named after the Greek mythological figure, brother of Prometheus, their names meaning 'hindsight, afterthinker' and 'foresight, fore-thinker' respectively.

Hyperion - named a character from Greek mythology, one of the twelve Titans. The name is from the Greek Huperion or 'high one'.

Iapetus - another Titan of Greek mythology, this from the Greek Iaoetos 'the piercer'.

Janus - the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. Unusually there is no Greek equivalent of this two-faced god. Etymologically there are three distinct suggestions for this name: hiantem 'to be open'; det 'to shine'; and ire 'to go'.

Mimas - another of the giants born of Gaia and the blood of the castrated Uranus (ah, so that explains it) although the etymology of the name is unknown.

Phoebe - another of the Titans, this name coming from the Greek Phoibe 'shining'.

Rhea - another named after a Titan, Rhea in Greek mythology was 'the mother of the gods' although her name probably originates in rheo 'flow'.

Titan - aptly named as this is not only Saturn's largest moon but the second largest in the solar system, indeed it is larger than the planet Mercury. This is named after the Titans, a race of giants and a world probably be from an early word tito meaning 'sun, day'.

URANUS - a Greek name originally Ouranos 'heaven, the sky'.

Ariel - named after a character in A Midsummer Nights Dream a play written by a chap named Shakespeare, apparently.Ariel is derived from the Herbrew word for 'altar'.

Miranda - named after a character in A Midsummer Nights Dream whose name is derived from the Latin mirari 'to admire'. The playwright's first name was William.

Oberon - named after the king of the fairies in A Midsummer Nights Dream and probably an Old French Auberon and an early loan word from a Germanic source meaning 'elf'. I'm told old Bill Shakespeare was born and died in Stratford-upon-Avon and on the same date in April.

Titania - named after the queen of the fairies in A Midsummer Nights Dream and is of Greek origin meaning 'daughter of the Titans'. The play was written by a man named Shakespeare who, so we hear, created a lot of English words.

Umbriel - named after a character in A Midsummer Nights Dream and a name derived from the Latin umbra or 'shadow'. Little old Billy the Bard went on to annoy a lot of people after his death and for centuries, too. Well let's get our own back by revealing that he, labelled the greatest wordsmith of all time, couldn't spell his own name and used a number of different spellings.

NEPTUNE - is the god of the sea in Greek mythology, hence the moons being named after minor Greek water deities. The name shares a root with 'nebula' in coming from Proto-Indo-European nebh 'cloud' and here used in a sense 'moist, wet'.

Nereid - named after the sea nymphs of Greek mythology and translates as 'nymph'.

Triton - is a Greek word related to Old Irish trethan 'the sea'.

Neso - not included because of its etymology, which is unknown, but because it has the longest orbital period of any moon known. It takes 26 years and 8 months and, to put this into context this means that since Neptune was discovered in 1846 the moon has been around the planet just over six times while our moon has been round us over two thousand times.Looking at it a different way, when Neso was last in this position in orbit around Neptune, Tony Blair had yet to be elected as a Member of Parliament, George Bush Snr was President of the United States, Saviour's Day by Cliff Richard was the UK number one single, Manchester United still hadn't won a title under Alexander Chapman Feguson, a first-class stamp cost 24p (18p for second-class), a loaf of bread would have cost you 50p, a pint of beer 99p, 80 tea bags for 46p, a pint of milk for 30p, and the essential Mars Bar 15p.

PLUTO - the Roman god of the underworld whose name comes from Proto-Indo-European pleu 'to flow'.

Charon - the ferryman of the dead over the river Styx, from the Greek Kahron and derived from the root chaopos 'of keen gaze'.

Hydra - is the name of the nine-headed serpent of Greek mythology killed by Heracles as the second of his twelve labours. Its name is the feminine version of hydros 'water snake'.

Nix - is the name of the Greek goddess of darkness and night, mother of Charon although strictly speaking the classical spelling is Nyx. She has few mentions in surviving mythology but what little is known suggests she was a goddess of incredible power and beauty and even Zeus himself feared her. The name Nix (or Nyx) comes from the Greek nykto 'night'.

Kerberos - this is the Greek version of the hound of Hades usually known as Cerberus in English. Etymology is uncertain but may be from Proto-Indo-European meaning 'spotted', albeit no depiction or writing of the three-headed hound ever mentions spots. Other suggestions include creoboros 'flesh-devouring', Ker berethrou 'evil of the pit', and the wondrous idea this comes from Proto-Indo-European ger 'to growl'

Styx - the river crossed to reach Hades, or so Greek mythology would have us believe. Its name comes from the Greek stygos 'hatred', stygnos 'gloomy', or stygein 'to abominate'.

Ceres - once the largest asteroid, it is now considered a dwarf planet. It is named after the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres comes from the Proto-Indo-European root kerh meaning 'to satiate, feed'.

Sunday 23 July 2017


After looking at the constellations last time, the research kept brinign me names of some of the best known stars in the night sky. Mythology plays a large role.

Achenar - found in the constellation of Eridamus, this is an Anglicised version of the original Arabic name of akhir an-nahr or 'river's end', while the Chinese know it as Shui Wei 'crooked running water'. It is actually a binary system, lies 139 light-years away, and is the tenth brightest star in the sky when viewed from Earth.

Altair - found in the constellation of Aquila, the Arabic name of an-nasr at-ta'ir means 'the flying eagle' while the Chinese Qian Niu Xing describes it as 'the cow herder star'. One of the closest stars visible to the naked eye at just 16.7 light-years distant, it rotates in a little under nine hours (compared to our sun's 25 days) giving it a flattened appearance, indeed the diameter at the equator is 20% greater than the diameter when measured through the poles.

Aldeberan - in the constellation of Taurus the Arabic al-dabaran means 'the follower', in relation to the Pleiades, in Indian astronomy it's Rohini 'the red one', while the Chinese describe it as Bixiuwu 'the fifth star of the net'. Ranked as the fourteenth brightest star when viewed from Earth, it is 65 light-years away, and may have a planet orbiting every 643 days and around eleven times the mass of Jupiter.

Antares - part of the constellation of Scorpius, this comes from Ancient Greek for 'against Ares', he the Greek version of the Roman god Mars. Babylonians knew it as 'the breast of the scorpion', in Arabic 'the heart of the scorpion', and other ancient cultures gave it names meaning 'the lord of the seed', 'the creator of prosperity', 'the king', 'the hero and the king', 'the vermilion star' and, to the Chinese xin suer 'second brightest'. It ranks as the fifteenth brightest star in the night sky, is 550 light-years from Earth, and has a diameter 1,766 times that of our sun.

Arcturus - is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes. It is 36.7 light-years from our sun and more than 25 times the size. This is its Greek name, this meaning 'the guardian of the bear', the Arabic name of al-simak meant 'the uplifted one', while Indian astronomers refer to it as Swati 'the horned one', the Japanese catalogue gives Mugi-boshi 'star of wheat', and in China Dajiao 'great horn'.

Betelgeuse - in the constellation of Orion this star is modern astronomers best bet to go supernova, it could happen at any time in the next million years apparently. A red supergiant it is one of the largest and brightest stars visible to the naked eye and has a distinctly red appearance. Its name comes from Arabic Ibt al-Jauza 'the axilla of Orion', with other names including Persian Basn 'the arm', Coptic Klaria 'an armlet', Tahitian Ana-varu 'the pillar to sit by', the Lacandon people of Central America knew it as chak tulix 'red butterfly', and the best of the all from the Chinese Shenxiusi 'the fourth star of the constellation of three stars'.

Canopus - named after a pilot of Greek mythology, the navigator fopr Memelaus, king of Sparta whose name is of uncertain etymology. It is the second brightest star in the night sky, approximately 320 light-years away, and in 480,000 years will become the brightest. Egptian Coptic knows this as Kahi Nub 'the golden earth', in Japan it is Roujin-sei 'the old man star', which is not as good as the name by which those on the Society Islands know this where Taura-e-tupu--tai-nanu means 'festivity whence comes the flux of the sea'.

Capella - is 24 times the diameter of our sun and 43 light-years distant. Its name is the Latin for 'small female goat', in Arabic it is Al-RakibJastreb
'the hawk', Chines Wu che 'five chariots', Hawaii Ke ka o Makali'i 'the canoe bailer of Makali'i', and to the Australian Boorang people Purra 'the kangaroo'.

Centaurus - some 390 light-years from us, it derives its name from the mythological centaur and a name first applied to a savage tribe of horsemen from Thessaly. Other names include the Arabic Agena 'knees', Chinese ma fu yi 'first star of the horse's abdomen', while the Boorang people of Australia know it as Tchingal 'the emu'.

Deneb - the 19th brightest star in the sky and 800 light-years away in the constellation of Cygnus. Its name simply means 'tail', although others know it differently. In Germany Uropygium 'the parson's nose', and to the Chines Tian Jin Si 'the fourth star of the celestial ford'. Around the year 9800 Deneb will become the new pole star as viewed from Earth.

Fomalhaut - a part of the constellation of Pisces, some 25 light-years from us, and the third brightest star in our skies. This name is from the Arabic fum al-hawt or 'mouth of the fish', although the Persians knew it as Haftorang Watcher of the south, to the Chinese it is Beiluoshimen 'north gate of the military camp', and to the Wardaman people of Australia's northern territory Menggen 'the white cockatoo'.

Polaris - at a distance of 433 light-years, this is the Latin for 'pole star' and known to the Saxons as scip-steorra 'the ship star', both named for this aid to navigation. To the Hindus it was Puranas 'immovable, fixed'; to the Greeks Cynosura 'the dog's tail'; and in Arabic al-katb al-shamaliyy 'the northern axle'.

Pollux - in the constellation of Gemini this is, with Castor, one of those heavenly twins. Some 34 light-years from Earth, this is the closest star to the sun to be classified as a giant. In Arabic it is Muekher al Dzira 'the end in the paw' and to the Chines Bei He 'the north river'.

Procyon - is from the Greek meaning 'preceding the dog', a reference to Sirius. It is the eighth brightest star in the night sky, although correctly it is actually three stars, and a distance of about 12 light-years from us. To the Babylonians this was Nangar 'the carpenter'; Arabic as-si'ra as-samiyah 'the Syrian sign' or al-ghumaisa 'the bleary-eyed woman'; and to the Chinese nanhesan 'third star in the south of the river'.

Rigel - the seventh brightest star visible from Earth is 863 light-years away and part of the constellation of Orion. The Arabic version was Rijl Jauzah al Yusra or 'the left leg of Jauzah', the personal name their interpretation of the figure known as Orion the Hunter; the Wardaman people of Australia call it Unumburrgu 'the red kangaroo leader'; the Watjobaluk people of Australia call it Yerrerdet-kurrk 'mother-in-law'; the Chinese know it as Shenxiu Qi 'the seventh star of the three star system'; and the Japanese Gin-waki 'the silver star'.

Sirius - the brightest star in the sky, also known as the Dog Star, it is a little over 8 light-years distant and part of the constellation of Canis Major. To the Greeks it was Seirios 'the scorcher'; Sanskrit Mrgavadha 'deer hunter'; to the Norsemen it was Lokabrenna 'burning done by Loki'; and the tribes of North American knew it as 'wolf star', 'coyote star' and .moon dog'.

Spica - the 16th brightest star in the sky, 250 light-years from Earth, and found in the constellation Virgo. Its name comes from Latin spica virginis 'the virgin's ear of grain'; alternatives include Arabic al-simak al-a'z'ai 'the undefended'; and in Indian astronomy Chitra 'the bright one'.

Vega - the fifth brightest star in the sky is 25 light-years away in the constellation of Lyra. Some 14,000 years ago it was the pole star and, if you can hang around a bit, will reclaim that position in the year 13,727. Its name is Arabic, from an-nasr al-waqi or 'the alighting vulture'; while the Chinese know it as Zhi Nu or 'weaving girl' in the Qi Xi love story; the Assyrians called it Dayan-sane 'the judge of heaven'; the Babylonians Dilgan 'messenger of light'; in Zoroastrianism it is Vanat 'the conquor'; and to the Boorong people of Australia Neilloan 'the flying loan'.

Spellings used are English as it is written in English.

Sunday 16 July 2017


Overheard a conversation about horoscopes the other day. In truth I only listened in the first place as I thought the topic had been astronomy.

With the conversation fading away, I began thinking of constellations and wondered where they got their names. Now while we only have twelve signs of the zodiac - Monty Python fans will argue there are thirteen, remember Derry and Toms? – but there are many more constellations and thus we shall take a look at where these names came from.

Andromeda – from the Greek it means ‘mindful of her husband’.
Aquarius – is Latin for ‘water carrier’.
Aquila – is the Latin word for ‘eagle’.
Ara – is Latin for ‘the altar’.
Aries – is the Latin for ‘ram’ and related to arietare ‘to butt’.
Auriga – another Latin term meaning ‘a charioteer’.
Bootes – is from the Greek meaning ‘herdsman’ or ‘ploughman’, but literally translating as ‘ox-driver’.
Camelopardalis – the Greek word for the ‘giraffe’, and derived from the name of the ‘camel’ and the ‘leopard’ as it has a long neck, like the camel, and spots, like the leopard.
Cancer – from the Greek karkinos which, like the modern word, has three meanings in ‘crab’ and ‘tumour’ as well as the name of the constellation. Clearly all three share a root, this being Proto-Indo-European qarq ‘to be hard’.
Canis Vernatici – the Latin for ‘hunting dogs’.
Capricornus – Latin again for ‘having horns like a goat’.
Cetus – Greek for ‘the whale’.
Chameleon – Greek for ‘lion on the ground’.
Columba – is the Latin for ‘dove’.
Coma Berenices – or ‘Berenice’s hair’, the Egptian queen’s name meaning ‘bringer of victory’.
Corvus – is the Latin word for ‘raven’.
Crater – in this context it is the Latin word for ‘cup;.
Cruz – features the Spanish word for ‘cross’.
Cygnus – is the Greek word for ‘swan’.
Delphinus – the Greek for ‘dolphin’.
Dorado – is Portuguese for ‘dolphinfish’.
Draco – the Latin word for ‘dragon’.
Equuleus – the Latin for ‘little horse’.
Fornax – is the Latin for ‘furnace’.
Gemini – is Latin for ‘twins’.
Grus – is Latin for ‘crane’.
Hercules – means ‘glory of Hera’, the name ‘Hera’ meaning ‘fame’.
Hydra – from the Greek for ‘water’.
Hydrus – is the Greek for ‘water serpent’.
Indus – is the Sanskrit word for ‘river’.
Lacerta – is the Latin word for ‘lizard’.
Leo – the Latin word for ‘lion’.
Leo Minor – and Latin for ‘small lion’.
Lepus – the Latin for ‘hare’.
Libra – Latin for ‘balance’ or ‘pair of scales’.
Lupus – is the Latin for ‘wolf’.
Lynx – is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European leuk ‘light’.
Lyra – the Latin for ‘lyre’.
Monoceros – the Greek word for ‘unicorn’.
Musca – the Latin for ‘fly’.
Octans – is from the name of the navigational instrument named from the Latin for ‘eighth part of a circle’.
Opiuchus – this means ‘the serpent-bearer’.
Orion – some sources suggest Akkadian for ‘the light of heaven’.
Pavo – features the Latin word for ‘peacock’.
Pegasus – thought to come from the Greek for ‘spring, well’ from whence Pegasus was born.
Perseus – some sources suggest a Pre-Greek origin meaning ‘waste, sack, destroy’.
Phoenix – perhaps originally referring to ‘Phoenician’ or ‘purple-red’.
Pictor – Latin for ‘painter’.
Pisces – is the Latin plural for ‘fish’.
Polaris – Latin for ‘the pole star’.
Puppis – literally ‘the poop deck’, as in the part of the ship.
Pyxis – is Latin for a ‘small medicinal box’.
Sagitta – the Latin word for ‘arrow’.
Sagittarius – is Latin for ‘archer’.
Scorpio – simply the Latin for ‘scorpion’.
Sculpta – is Latin for ‘sculptor’.
Serpens – is Greek for ‘the serpent’.
Sextans – is named for the astronomical sextant, its name meaning ‘one sixth part’.
Taurus – is Latin for ‘bull, bullock’.
Triangulum – is Latin for ‘triangle’.
Tucana – refers to the ‘toucan’ and comes from a Tupi word, they indigenous to the region now part of modern Brazil, tukana which is probably imitative of its call.
Ursa Major – as many will know this is also known as the Great Bear, although strictly the translation from Latin should be ‘the great she-bear’.
Ursa Minor – unsurprisingly this is Latin for ‘the lesser she-bear’.
Vela – named from the Latin for ‘sails’.
Virgo – is Latin for ‘the virgin’, a word which probably began referring to a plant or crop which had yet to produce seed in something akin to ‘young shoot’.
Volans – was originally known as Piscis Volans or ‘flying fish’.

Incidentally if you want to know the origin of Derry and Toms, they were a London department store who went out of business in 1971 and were named after founders Charles Derry and Joseph Toms.

For those wondering what happened to some of the omissions, those have never been understood and, etymologically speaking, are simply proper names.

Sunday 9 July 2017

Seas and Oceans

Chose the perfect week for a UK holiday this year - not a cloud in the sky and temperatures in the low thirties. In an attempt to keep a little cooler we took many boat trips around the Devon coastline. Obviously we all know the origins of the English Channel, etymologicially not geologically - 'English' from 'England' or 'the land of the Angles' and 'channel' correctly referring to 'a bed of running water' in the 14th century (interestingly it was the British Channel prior to 1825) - but I wondered about the origins of others seas and oceans. Doubtless those enjoying the waters of more exotic locations, such as the Irish Sea, will wonder how the names Wonder no more.

Adriatic - named from the town of Atria, modern Adria, in Picenum near Venice. At the time it was a seaport but is now more than 10 miles from the coast. This comes from atra from 'black' or 'the black city'.

Aegean - traditionally named for Aegeus of Greek mythology, the father of Theseus who threw himself to his own death when thinking his son had perished. However the more likely explanation is the Greek aiges 'waves', which is not unlike the Latin aqua from Proto-Indo-European akwa 'water'.

Andaman - thought to come from the Andaman Islands, itself said to be from Andoman, a form of Hanuman, the Sanskrit name of the Indian god.

Arabian - from Arab, itself traceable to the Greek Arabos probably meaning 'inhabitant of the desert' and related to the Hebrew arabha 'desert'.

Aral - in the Turkic tongues aral means 'island' or 'archipelago' and can thus be understood as 'sea of islands', of which some 1,100 were once found here. Correctly the Aral Sea had been the fourth largest lakes in the world but irrigation projects have diverted waters and there are now four small lakes of higher salinity.

Azov - another likely named from a settlement on the shore, here Kipchak Turkish azaq meaning 'lowlands'. However another origin theory points to the Cuman prince Azum who was killed defending a local town in 1067.

Baltic - until the 11th century this was the Mare Suebicum, Latin for 'the sea of the Suebi', the local people who may, depending upon which source is accepted, have named themselves as 'one's own' or were named by the Celts as 'vagabonds'. The modern name is unknown until the German chronicler Adam of Bremen and, while the origin is disputed, may come from the Germanic belt or 'strait' as this is still used for two Danish straits known as the Belts.

Beaufort - an Arctic sea named after hydrographer Sir Francis Beaufort, a naval officer who lived in Ireland but was descended from the French Huguenots and who had the Beaufort wind scale named after him. Despite being self-educated he was associated with contemporary mathematicians of the calibre of John Herschel and Charles Babbage.

Bering - named for the Danish navigator Vitus Bering, the first European to explore the region extensively.

Black - one of four 'coloured seas' in English but one which is difficult to see as in any way darker than others. Thus the modern idea is this related to the Red Sea as the 'north sea' (see below).

Caribbean - named after the Carib people (which is why the American pronunciation is correct). The Kalina people are how they know themselves, the western name comes from the Spanish Caribe, a bad pronunciation of the Arawakan kalingo 'brave ones' or kalino 'strong men'.

Caspian - named for the people who lives on the shores of the Caspian Sea, themselves originally from the Caucasus, who were named Caspii or 'whites' by the Romans.

Coral - abounds with coral as evidenced by the Great Barrier Reef. The word 'coral' is of semitic origin, related to Hebrew goral 'small stone' and Arabic garal 'small pebble' and originally only applied to the red coral found in the Mediterranean.

Dead - the Dead Sea is named because of its salt content (the Bible refers to it as the Salt Sea). Now people will jump up and down and claim all the sea is salty, yet the Dead Sea's salinity at 34.2% is great deal higher than the 3% to 4% of the vast oceans of the world. It is known as the Dead Sea although it does support a very small population of bacteria and microbial fungi and is correctly a lake.

Galilee - is named for the province of Palestine and derived from the Hebrew root galil used here to mean 'district' but usually meaning 'circle'.

Irish - named after the Irish inhabitants of Ireland, itself derived from the Old Irish Eriu and Proto-Celtic Iveriu and understood as 'fat' as in 'prosperous'.

Ionian - of unknown origins but ancient Greek writers attributed it to the myth of Io, who was said to have swum the sea. The name is probably pre-Greek and could be related to Sanskrit yoni 'womb' and reference to a goddess.

Java - named after the most populous island on the planet, itself of disputed origins. This could be from the jawa-wut, a plant also known as foxtail millet grown in India since before records began, and certainly grown in China some 8,000 years ago. Other suggestions point to jau 'distant, beyond' or Sanskrit yava 'barley', or even a Proto-Indonesian word Iawa meaning 'home'.

Labrador - named after the Portuguese explorer Joao Fernandes Lavrador. His family name is 'Fernandes', the last element shows he was a landowner for lavrador means 'farmer, plougher'.

Ligurian - named after the ancient Ligures people who inhabited the area known as Iberia. Little is known of these Celtic people, which may be due to the suggestion their name is Pre-Celtic and only the suffix asco 'village' has survived.

Marmara - the sea, once again, took its name from the island of Marmara. The place is a rich source of marble, which is why the Greek marmaron meaning 'marble'.

Mediterranean - the name is of Latin derivation, where mediterraneus means 'inland' or 'middle of the land', which is a good description of the sea which, one day, will be very much an inland sea.

North - this came to English from Dutch Noordzee as opposed to the Zuiderzee or 'South Sea'. It has also been known as the German Sea, German Ocean, Frisian Sea, Mare Frisicum, and in different languages today as the Nordsoen, Noordzee, Mer du Nord, Noardsee, Nordsee, Noordsee, Weestsiie, Nordsjoen, NNordsjon, An Cuan a Tuath, Noordzee and others.

Norwegian - clearly derived from the country of Norway, itself named for 'the northern way' which is how the English viewed it.

Okhotsk - named after the region giving its name to the town of Okhotsk, the first Russian settlement in the Far East with a name derived from the river Okhota, itself a Tungus word meaning 'river'. Hence a river name gave a district name, which gave a settlement its name, and then to the sea - of of which mean 'river'.

Red - some think this is named from the algal growth or corals, however this does not seem true of the majority of the sea for most of the year. Hence the modern idea is this refers to the 'southern sea' in relation to the Black Sea being the northern version.

Ross - along with Ross Island and the Ross Ice Shelf, the Ross Sea was named after British explorer James Clark Ross who came here in 1841 and whose name is a Gaelic word meaning 'headland'.

Sargasso - named after the Sargassum seaweed which grows in these calm waters. The seaweed was named by Portuguese sailors after a species of rock rose found in water wells in their homeland, Helianthemum. Sargassum is used in Chinese medicine as the answer to "heat phlegm" (neither do I), and of greater interest is the Sargasso Sea, which is unique in having no land borders.

South China - oddly enough it washes the southern shores of China.

Timor - comes from the island of Timor, itself derived from the Malay word timur meaning 'east'.

Tyrrhenian - named after the Tyrrhenian people but a name which is difficult to define. This is due to every early reference we know coming from the Greeks but it is not from a Greek word. It has been connected to an early loan word tursis or 'tower' but this lacks support as we have no idea how this was used. What does seem likely, however, is this shares an origin with the Tusci, the Latin exonym for the Etruscans.

Yellow - named from the sand storms across the Gobi Desert which sprinkles sand particles on the surface waters to make the sea appear yellow.

There are also a number of minor seas around the Antarctic continent, of which we have only examined the Ross Sea. Some interesting names and thus, working clockwise from the Ross Sea, we find .....

Amundsen Sea - named by Norwegian Nils Larsen in 1929 after his compatriot Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, doing so on December 14th 1911. His surname means 'the son of the respectful protector'.

Bellinghausen Sea - named after explorer Admiral Thaddeus Bellinghausen who explored the area in 1821.

Weddell Sea - named after Scotland's James Weddell, he explored this area from 1823 but was not named such until 1900.

Scotia Sea - this was not named from Scotland directly, but after the vessel Scotia of the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition in 1902-04 under William Bruce, although the sea was not officially named in 1932.

Lazarev Sea - a name coined in 1962 to honour Russian admiral Mikhail Lazarev but, despite this appearing on Soviet and Russian maps, it failed to gain international approval in 2002.

Riiser-Larsen Sea - another name din 1962, this time to honour Nowegian explorer and aviator Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, who is regarded as the founder of the Norwegian Air Force. Again it appears only on Soviet and Russian maps, failing to be recognised internationally in 2002.

Cosmonauts Sea - yet again named in 1962 and only appearing on Soviet and Russian maps and also rejected at the 2002 international conference. The name was chosen to mark the first manned craft to journey into space and is an interesting word. It is formed of two Greek elements, 'cosmos' and 'nautes'. Here the suffix is 'sailor' derived from a Proto-Indo-European nau 'boat', while the prefix is Greek kosmos 'order'. Interesting to see one of the most recent words is based on a language of one of the earliest civilizations together with what must have been among our earliest Europen words.

Cooperation Sea - another only found on Soviet and Russian maps, named in 1962 and dismissed forty years later, it was meant to mark the idea of international cooperation on this massive continent - which seems to have been overlooked by the international committee of 2002.

Davis Sea - at last one receiving international approval, it was named by Sir Douglas Mawson, leader of the Australian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14 after Captain J. K. Davis, second in command of the expedition and in command of the Aurora.

Mawson Sea - as above except named by the International Hydrographic Organization of 2002 for the commander of the expedition of 1911-14.

D'Urville Sea - named after French explorer and officer Jules Dumont d'Urville.

Somov Sea - for a change not named by the Russians in 1962 but in 2002, the outcome remained the same as it was never approved. It would have honoured Russian oceanologist and polar explorer Mikhail Somov (1908-73) who commanded the first Soviet Antarctic Expedition between 1955 and 1957.

So interested had I been to define the less well known names, I was in danger of omitting the major areas of ocean in the world - or maybe not.

Pacific - named by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan as the Mar Pacifico as he encountered favourable winds on the 'peaceful sea'.

Atlantic - named for the famed island of Atlantis, itself the 'island of Atlas' (the Titan who held up the world and not the book of maps).

Indian - named after India, itself derived from Indus, a river name from Old Persian word Hindu, itself from the Sanskrit word Sindhu which was the Sanskrit name for the Indus River and which means simply 'river' or 'stream'.

Arctic - from the Greek word artikos or 'near the Bear'. Note this is 'Bear' not 'bear' and thus doesn't refer to the mammal but the constellation of either Ursa Major (the Great Bear) or Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) - the latter more likely as it contains Polaris, the Pole Star or the North Star.

English spellings have been used as the piece is written in English

Sunday 2 July 2017


Subject of volcanoes came up the other day when the quizmaster asked "At 6,893 metres (22,615 feet) Ojos del Salado is the world's highest what?" Of course I got the answer completely wrong, as it is the world's highest volcano and not the world's highest ski lift. (No comments please!) However I did wonder if, had I known the origin and/or meaning of Ojos del Salado, the answer was staring me in the face. So I looked and produced the following list of the world's highest volcanoes, dormant and active, to see how they got their names. The list includes every volcano over 6,000 metres, all of which are found in South America, and beginning with the highest.

Ojos del Salado - 6,893 metres (22,615 feet) - is also the highest active volcano on the planet. This name means 'the eyes of the salty one', a reference to the large deposits of salt forming within the glaciers giving the appearance of eyes.

Monte Pissis - 6,793 metres (22,287 feet) - not named after a waterfall but after a French geologist working for the Chilean government. Pedro Jose Amadeo Pissis.

Nevado Tres Cruces - 6,748 metres (22,139 feet) - this is Spanish for 'three crosses'.

LLullaillaco - 6,739 metres (22,110 feet) - from the Kunza tongue where llulla means 'lies, deceit' and llaco 'water'. Here the message speaks of how meltwater, which would normally be seen as a source of fresh water, is quickly absorbed into the soil.

Cazadero - 6,660 metres (21,850 feet) - a Spanish name meaning 'a place for the pursuit of game'.

Nevado Tres Cruces Central - 6,629 metres (21,749 feet) - is, as above, 'the central three crosses'.

Incahuasi - 6,621 metres (21,722 feet) - is easy to see when we know this is Quechua for 'Inca house'.

Tupungato - 6,570 metres (21,555 feet) - means 'star viewpoint' in the Huarpe language.

Nevado Sajama - 6,542 metres (21,463 feet) - while nevado is Spanish for 'snowy' I'm afraid I drew a blank on Sajama. Any suggestions?

Ata - 6,501 metres (21,329 feet) - whether the Ata people took their name from the mountain or vice versa is not clear, but in both cases likely means 'father' or perhaps 'ancestor'.

Coropuna - 6,425 metres (21,079 feet) - means 'shrine on the plateau', this is the site of an irrigation scheme by the Incas which remains the highest ever known anywhere in the world.

Cerro El Condor - 6,414 metres (21,043 feet) - is simply 'the mountain of the condor'.

Parinacota - 6,348 metres (20,827 feet) - an Aymara name meaning 'the flamingo lake'.

Ampato - 6,288 metres (20,630 feet) - another from the Aymara language, this meaning 'frog'.

Chimborazo - 6,267 metres (20,561 feet) - and although not officially the highest point on the Earth it is at its peak, by virtue of the Earth not being a perfect sphere but having an equatorial bulge, the furthest point from the centre of the Earth. However until the beginning of the 19th century this was considered the highest point on the planet and would still be so, if convention didn't measure land above sea level. Its etymology is disputed, perhaps Quechua chimba 'on the other side' joins razu 'ice, snow' to refer to the snowline. Another idea points to the Cayapa tongue giving 'women of the ice' and a third idea offers Jivaro for 'throne of the ice god'.

Pular - 6,233 metres (20,449 feet) - no question this is from the Kunza language and means 'the eyebrow'.

Cerro Solo - 6,190 metres (20,308 feet) - is fairly easy Spanish for 'one hill' (albeit a very high hill).

Aucanquilcha - 6,176 metres (20,262 feet) - another where I drew a blank at finding an origin but I did discover this was the location of the highest mine ever known and until at least the end of the last century was the highest permanently inhabited location in the world - population of the village being just four and unlikely to grow as they were all men.

San Pedro - 6,145 metres (20,161 feet) - simply Spanish for Saint Peter.

Sierra Nevada - 6,127 metres (20,102 feet) - another Spanish name, this coming from 'the snowy range'.

Solimana - 6,093 metres (19,990 feet) - probably derived from the Spanish soliman 'corrosive, poison' and a reasonable description of a volanco.

Aracar - 6,082 metres (19,954 feet) - no origins of this name have been suggested.

Guallatini - 6,071 metres (19,918 feet) - one suggestion gives this as 'the place of the Andean geese'.

Chachani - 6,057 metres (19,872 feet) - no origins of this name could be found.

Socompa - 6,051 metres (19,852 feet) - sadly nothing could be found here.

Acamarachi - 6,046 metres (19,836 feet) - is a name meaning 'black moon'.

Hualca Hualca - 6,025 metres (19,767 feet) - has been suggested as meaning 'a complex of collars', volcanic craters could certainly be seen as collar-like.

Uturunku - 6,008 metres (19,711 feet) - this is the Quecha word for 'jaguar' - presumably the large cat and not the car.

And just so we include some of the better known names

Cotopaxi - is often said to mean 'shining pile' but this has yet to be proved.

Etna - is held to be from the Phoenician attuna meaning 'furnace' or perhaps 'chimney'.

Fujiyama - having no early records makes it difficult to define but a text from the 10th century maintains this means 'immortal'. A similar story suggests the literal meaning of 'not exhaust', thus another suggestion of immortality. One further explanation gives this as 'not two', thus 'without equal'.

Mauna Loa - translates as 'long mountain'.

Popacatapetl - derived from the Nahuatl words popoca 'it smokes' and tepetl 'mountain', a fair description of a volcano.

Mt St Helens - was named after British diplomat Lord St Helens, a good friend of George Vancouver who first surveyed the area in the late 18th century. Traditional names, there are several depending upon the tribe concerned, describe this as 'the smoker', 'water coming out', and 'snow mountain'.

Stromboli - a name derived from Ancient Greek Strongule because of its rounded, rather swollen shape. Yes, say it out loud - it makes sense.

Tristan da Cunha - was named by the Portuguese explorer who first saw the islands in 1506, one Tristao da Cunha.

Vesuvius - an ancient name and one where the meaning depends very much on which language first coined the name. Greek would give us either 'unquenchable' or 'hurling violence'; while an earlier Indo-European root would offer up 'the one who lightens' or 'hearth'.