In my other blog in February I showed a picture of a milkweed seed with fluff radiating from one end and I commented that it reminded me of a comet. The resemblance is a botanical and an etymological one. I don’t think anyone will deny that the fibers attached to the milkweed seed look like canas, the white hairs on a human head. When the ancient Greek saw a comet, its “tail” similarly reminded them of a flow of long hair, and so they called that tail kome, a word that meant ‘the kind of hair that grows on a person’s head’ (some languages have different words for ‘head hair’ and ‘body hair’). From the noun kome came the adjective kometes ‘wearing long hair,’ which the American Heritage Dictionary says Aristotle used as a noun to designate ‘a comet.’ Latin, great copier that it was, borrowed the Greek word as cometes (Latin didn’t normally use the letter k). Because cometes didn’t have the typical form of a singular noun, Late Latin recast the word as cometa, which Spanish has adopted. That was also the form in which Old English took the word from Latin, but the final syllable has since been lost.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Joseph Snow
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 11:29:11

    COMETA in Spanish is also, interestingly, the word for KITE, as I am sure you can see exactly why-


  2. Juan Luis Calbarro
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 13:57:04

    When I was a child, my mother used to trim my hair at home with a simple but useful cutter called Comet, but in that time I was not aware of that brand’s Greek meaning! Here you can see it open and closed. I miss that!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 19, 2013 @ 14:27:41

      It seems that someone in that company was unusually literate and chose to name a hair trimmer using the Greek word for ‘hair.’ At least I like to think that that’s the explanation, rather than having the name be merely a coincidence.


  3. Juan Luis Calbarro
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 15:50:16

    A prominent relative of comets, also in the skies from classical ages, is the constellation Coma Berenices (“Berenice’s Hair”). As we say in Spanish, “el mundo es un pañuelo” 😉


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 19, 2013 @ 18:11:54

      I’d thought about mentioning Coma Berenices in this article, but somehow I didn’t, so thanks for adding it here. The expression “el mundo es un pañuelo” is new to me, so thanks again.


  4. shoreacres
    Feb 20, 2013 @ 10:30:50

    I didn’t know of the connection between Coma Berenices with Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, and certainly had no idea pursuing all this would bring me around to Benghazi. What interesting trails to follow!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 20, 2013 @ 11:40:51

      I didn’t know about the connection to Alexander Pope, either. I missed the connection to Benghazi, but because you mentioned it I did some searching and found out that underneath modern Benghazi’s center lies the ancient city of Berenice, named after the same Berenice whose hair supposedly became a constellation. So much to learn.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
%d bloggers like this: