16 December 2019

Naming the Comets

Time-lapse of Comet 2I Borisov

An artist’s impression of `Oumuamua as a dark red highly-elongated metallic or rocky object,
about 400 meters long, and unlike anything normally found in the Solar System.

On December 8 this year, a newly discovered comet looped around our Sun after a journey of more than 100 million years from the birth of some very distant star. It makes its closest pass to Earth today and then heads out of our solar system again. By the middle of 2020, the comet will streak past Jupiter's distance of 500 million miles on its way back into interstellar space where it will drift for untold millions of years before skirting close to another star system.

It's only the second interstellat object to visit us, so it's a big deal. But it has the very boring name of "Comet 2I Borisov." It was discovered by Gennady Borisov, a Crimean astronomer, and, of course, he wanted his piece of history.

A much more interesting name goes to the first interstellar object to visit our solar system. That was ʻOumuamua.

The International Astronomical Union assigns designations for astronomical objects and they originally classified it as Comet C/2017 U1. Then it was reclassified as the equally boring asteroid A/2017 U1. The renaming was because it had no "coma" - the nebulous envelope around the nucleus of a comet formed when the comet passes close to the Sun and warms so that it gets a "fuzzy" appearance when viewed in telescopes and distinguishes it from stars. The word coma comes from the Greek "kome" (κόμη), which means "hair" and is the origin of the word comet itself.

Once this comet was identified as coming from outside the Solar System, a new designation was created: I, for Interstellar object. ʻOumuamua, as the first object so identified, was designated 1I but is also referred to as 1I; 1I/2017 U1; 1I/ʻOumuamua; or 1I/2017 U1 (ʻOumuamua). I'm only interested in ʻOumuamua.

What caught my attention first was that first character which is a Hawaiian ʻokina, and not an apostrophe. It is pronounced as a glottal stop.  The name comes directly from the Hawaiian word ʻoumuamua, meaning "scout," because the object has come from so far away to check us out. The name was chosen by the Pan-STARRS team in consultation with Kaʻiu Kimura and Larry Kimura of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. It was discovered by Robert Weryk using the Pan-STARRS telescope at Haleakala Observatory, Hawaii.

That is a much better name than 1I. But I would have been quite happy if they had gone with another suggested name: Rama. That is the name given to an alien spacecraft discovered under similar circumstances in the 1973 science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. It's a novel I really enjoyed reading. That object was seen as an alien craft that was on a scouting expedition checking out the rest of the universe.

 ʻOumuamua is tumbling, rather than smoothly rotating, and is moving so fast relative to the Sun that there is no chance it originated in the Solar System and it cannot be captured into a solar orbit. It will leave our Solar System and resume traveling through interstellar after roughly 20,000 years of travel in the Solar System.

ʻOumuamua's planetary system of origin and the amount of time it has spent traveling amongst the stars are unknown. I love that mystery.

09 December 2019

Going South

The phrase "going south" to mean "becoming worse" is another one whose origin is not settled.

The most common origin attributes it to the standard orientation of maps. South is the downwards direction so things going south are going down. That would fit this type of usage: "Yesterday the stock market moved south, ending up on a loss for the day."

Another origin say that it was a euphemism used by some Native Americans for dying. "He was unconcerned that his health might go south."

This idiom always means that a situation becomes unfavorable, decreases, or takes a turn for the worse. "My luck went south."

04 December 2019

Kick the Bucket, Buy the Farm and Bite the Dust

Most idioms don't make a lot of literal sense and so they often don't translate to other languages. In English, we have lots of ways of euphemistically say that someone has died. In this post, I'll consider three of them. Sometimes even the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary(OED) can't quite say definitively what the origin of a phrase might be. That's the case for the three in this post.

Why would we say that someone has "kicked the bucket" when they have died? One possible origin is that a person standing on a pail or bucket intending to commit suicide would put their head into the noose and then kick the bucket away.

Is that any more plausible than the archaic use of "bucket" as a beam from which a pig is hung by its feet prior to being slaughtered. To kick the bucket, was the term used to mean the pig's death throes.

Another origin that comes from the Catholic church is that at one time when a body had been laid out, a holy-water bucket was brought from the church and put at the feet of the corpse. When mourners came to pray they could sprinkle the body with holy water. I don't see any kicking involved in that explanation.

My favorite "kick the bucket" movie moment still comes in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

To "buy the farm" meaning to die is an American expression going back to the WWII and the Air Force.  At the time the similar "buy the plot" (as in a cemetery plot) and buy the lot were also used, but the farm survived.

A military pilot with a hit plane would often attempt to crash land in a farmer's field. If the crash destroyed some crops, the government paid reimbursement to the farmer, but if it was a really bad crash that destroyed most of the crops or buildings, the government would "buy the farm."

Then again, there are older British slang expressions "buy it," "buy one" or "buy the packet" that are supposed to be references to something that one does not want to buy.

The earliest citation of the 'bite the dust" is from 1750 by the Scottish author Tobias Smollett , in his Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane: "We made two of them bite the dust, and the others betake themselves to flight."

I also found a reference to a much earlier phrase "lick the dust" that is supposed to appear in the Bible.

Samuel Butler's 19th-century translation of Homer's The Iliad contains "Grant that my sword may pierce the shirt of Hector about his heart, and that full many of his comrades may bite the dust as they fall dying round him." But this is not Homer but Butler's use of the phrase.

And these are not all the euphemistic phrases for death. But we won't get into others like "to punch your ticket" or "meet your maker."

Another source of some interesting origins is Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins by Michael Quinion

26 November 2019

Are You a -phile?

Are you a "bibliophile"? That is a lover of books. The suffix -phile denotes a fondness for a specified thing and comes from the Greek philos meaning "loving." A heliophile is a lover of the sun.

There are hundreds of different types of "philes" with new ones being created for new things but probably using a Greek or Latin word attached to the suffix.

A retrophile loves things from the past. "Retro" itself is fairly new being a 1960s creation 1960s from French rétro, an abbreviation of rétrograde which has a number of meanings (mostly scientific) but usually refers to something going backward or reversing.

An oenophile comes from oinos, the Greek word for wine and so an oenophile is a lover of wine. This isn't just someone who drinks a lot of wine, but rather is interested in wine production and probably collects wines.

You don't hear many people saying they are turophiles, but many people do love cheeses. Taking the Ancient Greek word for cheese, "turos," is much classier than saying you're a cheesephile or cheesehead. The true turophile (as with oenophiles) doesn't just eat up all the cubes of cheddar on the appetizer table, but knows many types of cheeses and collects favorites.

A few others:

  • Cynophile - lover of dogs
  • Pluviophiles have a fondness for rain (Latin pluvial for rain). A lover of rain does not just find enjoyment in the physical presence of rain, they also find joy and peace when a rainy day descends.
  • Can you hear a color in caeruleaphile? These people have a strong fondness for blue.
  • I know many javaphiles who love their coffee. This one is neither Latin or Greek but takes the slang word ‘java’ for coffee.



14 November 2019

Let Them Eat Cake

Right off, Marie-Antoinette didn’t say "Let them eat cake." But someone did.

Marie-Antoinette, born in Vienna in 1755 was the 15th child of Maria Theresa, the Hapsburg empress, and Emperor Francis I.

Her mother betrothed her to Louis-Auguste, grandson of King Louis XV, when she was 10 years old in order to strengthen the alliance between her Hapsburg relatives and the French Bourbons. She meet her future husband the day before they were married when she was 14 and Louis was 15.

The marriage, not surprisingly, was not great for the first years. The young couple had never consummated their marriage after the wedding. Louis XVI and his queen made the marriage official after 7 years together and the first of their four children was born the following year.

They were happy but completely different. He was indecisive, an introvert who preferred to spend his free time alone, reading or metalworking. She was a real queen - a vivacious extrovert she loved parties, gambling, theater and a big spender on amusements.

She had a miniature farm built at Versailles, not to have produce but so that she and her ladies could pretend to be shepherdesses and milkmaids. She would have 300 new gowns a year, and she loved extreme hairstyles.

France was in debt, partly because it was supporting the American Revolution. The monarchy and nobility paid almost no taxes. (Sounds familiar.) Commoners who were hit hard by crop failures and food shortages paid the state's bills.

She became a symbol of what was wrong with the government and everything that was wrong with France. Marie-Antoinette made secret arrangements for her family to flee in 1791, but the plans failed when revolutionaries captured the royal family as they were escaping and they became prisoners of the Revolutionary government.

In 1792, France was declared a republic and the monarchy was abolished. Louis was executed. Marie-Antoinette was accused and convicted of treason and the sexual abuse of her son, and she was beheaded in October 1793.

Marie-Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.” That was penned by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, years before Marie-Antoinette ever even came to France. He was describing a queen, but it was another foreign-born French queen, Marie-Therese of Spain, the wife of Louis XIV. But the attitude of that phrase did fit Marie-Antoinette.