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