Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Imagine you live more than 2,100 years in the past on the western coast of the Aegean Sea. At night, you gaze up at a clear sky full of beautiful stars. The word for star in your language (Greek) is astēr.
While you’re star-gazing, one particular astēr does something unexpected. It seems to be moving slowly across the sky trailing a long, bright tail. You are familiar with the idea of a meteōron, literally “a thing high up,” a generic word that describes all sorts of atmospheric phenomena, including rain and snow, rainbows, and lightning. You’ve even seen a “shooting star,” one of the few heavenly things that, in English in the 21st century, is still etymologically linked to meteōron.
But that thing you see in the sky back on the ancient Aegean coast isn’t a quick streak of light, a sudden flare that is just as suddenly gone. This one persists — a bright little star with long streaks like locks of hair trailing behind it. You don’t know exactly what it is, but that comparison to hair strikes you as poetic.
So you call the thing in the sky an astēr komētēs — a “star with long hair,” from the Greek word for “hair,” komē. The name catches on, but it’s a mouthful, especially for something that doesn’t appear all that often in one’s life. So it isn’t long before the phrase is shortened to just komētēs, which, over the centuries that follow, makes the transition from Greek to Latin (cometa) to Old French (comete) to, sometime in the 12th or 13th century, the English comet.
You might notice a resemblance between the Greek word kōme “hair” and the tool one uses to control hair — a comb. That resemblance, however, is purely superficial. Comb was once the Old English camb and comes from Germanic roots.
No, the Greek root komē didn’t make it into many English words. You might hear a scalp specialist talk about acomia — a word coined in the mid-19th century to mean “baldness,” using the prefix a- “without.” But beyond that, comet, that long-haired star in the sky, is likely the only word you’ll hear that’s derived from what you might call graying roots.
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