On my other blog this past August I got a comment in French that likened a wasps’ nest I’d photographed to a soucoupe volante, or flying saucer. And that, I thought, makes me an extraterrestrial, but when I went to write that as a reply to the comment, I had to pause to think exactly how French spells its version of the word for ‘extraterrestrial.’ That led me to notice that extraterrestre is the spelling not only in French but also in Spanish, Galician, Portuguese, Catalan, and Italian (with all of them having a plural in -es except for Italian, whose plural is extraterrestri). I also realized that English, in addition to the standard extraterrestrial, has developed a non-standard version without the last r, an omission that linguists would label dissimilation; in other words, after two instances of a t followed (directly or closely) by an r in the word, some English speakers say enough already and refuse to pronounce another one. A Google search that I did brought up about 40% as many hits for extraterrestial as for the standard extraterrestrial.
Etymologically speaking, extraterrestre/extraterrestrial is made up of the Latin elements extra ‘outside’ and terra ‘earth.’ In a different direction we have Mediterráneo/Mediterranean, which is the name of a sea in the middle (medi-) of the combined land masses of Europe and Africa. (The Romans, by the way, with the haughtiness of empire, called the Mediterranean mare nostrum, or ‘our sea.’) Another relative, this time internal, is enterrar/inter, which designates the action of putting a dead body into the earth. While enterrar is a down-to-earth (i.e commonplace) word in Spanish, the borrowed-from-Latin inter is a fancy one in English. Either way, the place a body ends up being buried can be called subterráneo/subterranean, which refers to something that takes place beneath the surface of the earth.
© 2013 Steven Schwartzman