What’s in a word

Every language has its share of words hiding elaborate histories and quirky details about certain civilizations. Here are just a few, whose story deserves to be told:


Literally bad star in ancient Greek, this word is a reminder that before the development of astronomy, people used to believe that comets predicted catastrophes and other unfortunate events. The impressive 11th century Bayeux Tapestry, illustrating the Norman conquest of England and the adventures of William the Conqueror, includes a representation of Halley’s Comet. Returning to Earth’s vicinity about every 75 years, the embroidered comet is looming here above a scene depicting Harold’s coronation. The message is straightforward: this reign will end in tragedy.

Bayeux Tapestry, embroidery in wool thread on linen cloth, 11th century, Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France
Photo: Wikipedia


Spring feeling in German, and one of those words impossible to translate. Just like Jean-François Millet’s painting, this word captures that moment when spring is finally chasing winter and its gloomy clouds away, while the best is yet to come. The painting is also hinting to two styles of painting: realist landscape as it was conceived by the Barbizon school and the impressionistic recording of a fleeting moment in time, in fresh colors and with a particular interest in light.

Millet, Spring
Jean-François Millet, Spring, 1868-1873, musée d’Orsay, Paris
Photo: http://www.wga.hu


The word derives from the god Pan, overlooking fertility and nature, protector of the shepherds. One legend attributes to Pan the sounds heard by night on mountains and valleys and so he was the cause of any sudden and groundless fear. This god also inspired Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), a masterpiece of horror according to Stephen King himself.

Pan and Daphne, marble, Roman copy after a Greek original by Heliodoros III-II BC, Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli
Photo: Wikipedia


Effortless elegance in Italian. As its creator, Baldassare Castiglione, explains in his 16th century The Book of the Courtier, sprezzatura is the art of never trying too hard, the ostentatious negligence of those who feel very skilled at doing something. This concept quickly transferred to painting referring to an artist’s “painterly”, impastoed brushwork, that dissimulated effort, for example in Venetian painting.

Titian, The Death of Actaeon, 1559–1575, National Gallery, London
Photo: Wikipedia


These are technically two words, both of them meaning second in French. The catch is that one of them, second, is the second of two, while the other, deuxième, is the second of many. It might seem as a pointless distinction, but calling WW2 la Seconde Guerre mondiale not only means you are talking about the second of two world wars, but it also implies that there will never be a third.

Shomei-Tomatsu Melted Bottle, Nagasaki, 1961
Shomei Tomatsu, Beer Bottle After the Atomic Bomb Explosion, gelatin silver print, 1961, Moma, New York
Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY


These two Russian words translate to truth [istina/pravda]. The first refers to moral values, while the second is our more mundane truth, dealing with reality. The prominent Russian painter Nikolay Nikolayevich Ge illustrates the first concept by focusing on one of the key episodes of the Passion of Christ. The son of God is facing Pontius Pilate and a fateful dialogue ensues:

The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.

What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

Ge Nikolay Nikolayevich, What is truth?, 1890, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Photo: Wikipedia


Looking closely, observing and contemplating the stars used to be an essential part of navigating, which is how we got the verb consider: con (with) + sidus/sidera (star/stars). Meaning that before offering someone our close attention, we should remember that we are in a way raising them all the way to the stars.

Vincent van Gogh, The Starry Night, 1889, MOMA New York
Photo: Wikipedia

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