Staring at the sun: solar language
Staring at the sun is, of course, something you should never do. It is also, coincidentally, the title of a novel by Julian Barnes, arguably the most famous novelist to have begun his literary career by writing entries for the Oxford English Dictionary. There is currently just one quotation from Staring at the Sun in the OED—at sense 4a of our entry for laugh (verb). But I digress. Looking at the sun is also just what the mission announced by NASA this week is designed to do; and, in a lexicographical context, it’s quite safe—and quite interesting—to look at sun, and at some of the other words related to our nearest star.
The word sun belongs to the oldest stratum of English words, in use since Anglo-Saxon times. It forms part of the heritage of words which English shares with other Germanic languages; thus it’s not surprising that its counterparts in some of the other Germanic languages are similar—German Sonne, Dutch zon, and so on. But it was never going to be enough to have just one word for it in English; although it remains the usual word, we also have several poetic synonyms, including Phoebus—deriving from a Greek name for the sun-god Apollo (and also used as a name for him in English)—and day star (a word first used to describe the ‘morning star’, Venus). The Latin word for the sun, sol, has also been borrowed into English; from the same source comes the adjective solar. (Anyone familiar with the pith helmet which used to be worn in India for protection from the sun might suppose that the name solar topi is an example of the same word; however, although it is often spelt in this way, its more conventional spelling is sola topi, and it is in fact a topi made from the pith of the sola plant, a different word entirely.) Modern sun-worshippers are likely to be familiar with the idea of the solarium, a room which offers exposure to the sun—or, more usually, one fitted with sunlamps or sunbeds which can be used to acquire an artificial suntan. Less obvious is the fact that the same Latin word solarium—which could be used of a gallery or terrace as well as a sunny room—is the origin of the noun solar, the name for an upper chamber in many medieval houses.
The Greek word for the sun, helios, has also given rise to a great many English words, including many of the scientific terms which may become familiar to us as the Solar Probe Plus mission proceeds. Thus the perihelion is the point in its trajectory at which the probe will be closest to the sun—closer than any other spacecraft. And throughout its journey it will be travelling within, and analysing, the heliosphere: the region of space in which the solar wind—the stream of charged particles that constantly flows outward from the sun—has a measurable influence. In fact the influence of the sun extends so far out—billions of kilometres—that only the most durable of spacecraft have ever reached the edge of the heliosphere, which is known as the heliopause.
Coming back to earth, we can find helio-words in our own back gardens. Various plants whose flowers turn to face the sun as it moves across the sky have been called heliotropes, a name now most commonly applied to a group of plants with (typically) purple flowers, and hence also to a shade of purple. The word can be traced back to ancient Greek (the second element derives from Greek trepein ‘to turn’); similar words occur in other languages, like French tournesol and Italian girasole, both of which denote what we in English call a sunflower—though the Italian word is also used of another plant belonging to the same genus, which we know in English (thanks to the inability or unwillingness of our seventeenth-century forebears to pronounce the Italian word) as the Jerusalem artichoke. A more ‘earth-bound’ vegetable it would be hard to imagine; and yet it takes its name from the sun-seeking behaviour of what grows above ground. The sun pervades our lives, and our language, sometimes in surprising ways.