Greek, Latin, or a little of both?

By | September 30, 2013

Sometimes I worry that I’ll describe the origin of a word incorrectly because I get my Greek and Latin roots confused. At this distance, it’s easy to see all the Greek and Roman words and deities as a combined source rather than remembering that Greek and Latin are two distinct languages representing different cultures and different times. And, in fairness to 21st century humans trying to keep things straight, Latin borrowed from Greek, and the sciences have sometimes taken words from both languages to describe the same thing.

In a post last week about chemical elements named for places, I mentioned the name tellurium, which comes from the Latin goddess of the Earth, Tellus. Actually, the Romans used two terms to refer to Earth: Tellus and Terra, or Terra Mater (mother Earth). The latter name may be an outright borrowing of the Greek religious concept of mother Earth, Gaea (or Gaia, or Ge Mater).

Both the Greek and the Roman names for mother Earth come down to us in science, in part because eventually Latin borrowed the prefix geo from Greek. Ge Mater is obviously the inspiration of geology, geography, geodesy, geometry, and geode. Terra Mater is where we get terrestrial (and terrain, and terrarium).

There’s a similar split in the names for things associated with the moon. The Greek goddess of the moon, Selene, gave her name to the element selenium and to the study of the moon, selenology. However, the term lunar, derived from the name of the Roman moon goddess Luna, is much more prominent, and selenology is generally called lunar science. Mars and Martian come from the Roman god, but we also use areology, from the Greek god Ares, to describe the study of the…errr..geology of Mars.

I suspect I’m not the first one to be confused; selenium was named after the moon analogously to tellurium after Earth, but selenium is from the Greek deity and tellurium is from the Roman deity. Furthermore, the term aurora borealis gets aurora from the Roman goddess of the dawn (for its beautiful colors) and borealis from the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas.

I’ll try hard to keep my roots straight, but I can’t feel too bad about seeing Greek and Latin as, if not a single source, at least two deeply interconnected sources.