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.
Beyond them lies Pluto, god of the underworld (aka Hades), and in naming the planet’s two recently-discovered moons, 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 names taken directly from mythology. 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). Other moon names (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 already taken, 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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Tracked on November 17, 2006 7:28 PM