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June 28, 2006

Product Naming: Mixing Mythologies for Astronomical Names

Most of the nine major planets in our Solar System have Roman names. Earth, of course, is English. Science fiction authors have preferred to use the Latin “Terra” instead. “Uranus” is actually Greek, though with a Latinized spelling. Ouranos was the god of the sky, grandfather of Kronos, the Greek equivalent of Saturn and the father of Jupiter. Thus the planets follow a logical pattern: son, father, grandfather.

Pluto and MoonsBeyond them lies Pluto, god of the underworld (aka Hades), and in , the International Astronomical Union chose to continue the underworld theme by going with Nyx and Hydra. Except that the IAU elected to spell “Nyx” with an “i.” Nyx is the Greek goddess of night, mother of Ouranos. But “Nix”? The “ix” ending looks more Roman, but the Roman Nyx is Nox. Now Pluto has a moon named “Nothing.” Ixnay that.

Almost all of the bodies in the Solar System have . Most are from Greek or Roman mythology, but to cover the minor moons of Saturn, astronomers started delving into Norse, Inuit, and Gallic names for giants (this because a Titan is a giant of sorts). (including Hydra) leave the “y” intact. Harpalyke and Kalyke and Eurydome might possibly be easier to pronounce if spelled with a “y” instead of an “i,” never mind Ymir and Thrymr.

So why nix Nyx? Because “Nyx” is , by a near-Earth object I’d never heard of. The more objects we find, the harder it is to come up with names.

This holds true for brand naming or product naming in general, or naming a company. And, this holds true for astronomy, of course. The astronomical use of mythological figures is so strong, it restricts the pool of available names. Or, more accurately, it restricts the pool of familiar names.

Most people of European descent are familiar with Greek and Roman mythology—usually in a distorted form suitable for small children. Norse and Celtic myth may also be familiar. But not many English-speakers, scientists or otherwise, know much Inuit, Polynesian, Maori, etc. mythology.

Chances are that as we explore space, we’ll end up with more and more unfamiliar names for what we find. And, you may have noticed this is the case for brand names, product names, and company names in general.

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Posted by Diane Prange at June 28, 2006 7:08 AM
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2 Comments

Good article, and thanks kindly for the trackback, it's appreciated.

You seem fond of both etymology and mythology, so a couple of writers you might be interested in:

Gene Wolfe (Soldier of the Mist, Soldier of Ares, Urth of the Long Sun cycle, The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, and many more.)
Roger Zelazny (Nine Princes in Amber & the rest of the Courts of Chaos series.)

Both authors embed literary mythology throughout their works, and in turn create new mythologies, I recommend them highly to both you and your readers.

Don't know if this thread will still get any response but why aren't the Greek names for the gods and goddesses used in naming astronomical objects. Where is Zeus, Hera, Ares, Athena, etc. I know a few asteroids are so named (i.e. Hermes the equivalent of Mercury) but why not the others?

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