syzygy

Surely one of the strangest words in English is syzygy, with a y acting as the sole vowel in all three syllables. Spanish renders the word sizigia (or sometimes sicigia), which has three i‘s rather than three y‘s, as well as a final a. The term is an astronomical one, and it means, in the words of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘either of the points at which the moon is most nearly in a line with the sun. The moon passes her syzygies, or is in a syzygy, at new and full moon.’ More generally, astronomy has applied the term to celestial bodies other than the moon, in which case syzygy is ‘either of the points at which the body is, relative to the earth, in conjunction with the sun or in opposition to the sun.’ In both cases, the sun, the earth, and the third body line up.

The Spanish form sizigia closely matches the syzigia that Late Latin took from the Greek compound suzugia, which meant ‘union.’ The first element was from sun- ‘together,’ which we find in borrowed words like simpatía/sympathy, literally ‘feeling together,’ and sinfonía/symphony ‘sounding together.’ The second element was based on zugon ‘yoke,’ so suzugia meant ‘yoked together,’ a metaphorical description of the sun, earth, and moon when all three are in alignment. Celestial bodies are in constant motion and therefore only occasionally come into alignment, but the three y‘s in the word syzygy are always in syzygy.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. TBM
    Jul 21, 2011 @ 08:45:23

    I’ve never even heard of this word. I have a feeling I could learn a lot from you.

    Reply

  2. TBM
    Jul 21, 2011 @ 09:15:11

    I’ll have to try to slip it into a conversation!

    Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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