Word Stories - November 6, 2023 - 2 min

Cosmic Questions

Cosmology is the name of the scientific discipline interested in the history and nature of the universe. The name harks back to the Ancient Greek words kosmos (“cosmos”) and logos (“word/reasoning”). As a field of study, cosmology faces challenges and puzzles on a grand scale. The Big Bang is a prime example: if the universe is everything that exists, what do we really mean when we talk about it getting bigger? This Word Stories instalment considers a few etymological puzzles related to cosmic questions. Thankfully, some of our questions have relatively clear answers.


The Ancient Greek noun kosmos had aesthetic connotations. As a noun meaning “arrangement” or “adornment”, kosmos could be used to refer to things like a dress or a hairdo, and in fact the aesthetic sense of the adjectival form kosmētikos still survives in our word cosmetic. Thanks to the Greek philosophical conception of the world as a beautifully ordered system, kosmos in Greek (and then cosmos/cosmus in Latin) came to be used as a word for the totality of the universe. The first English attestation of the word cosmos/cosmus accordingly mentions that the “World is called Cosmus from the beauty thereof” (J. Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis, 1650).

Thanks to this traditional connection with a sense of good order, the English word cosmos and the derivative adjective cosmic can sometimes be found serving as antonyms for chaos and chaotic. Thomas Carlyle could complain, for example, about a particular collection of books being “chaotic” as opposed to “cosmic” (The History of Friedrich II of Prussia, 1858). The more literal sense of cosmos as “world/universe” (on a scale extending far beyond the earth) and cosmic as “relating to the universe” (on that grand scale) have always been more common, though, and they are the only senses in widespread use today.


In Ancient Greek, the starry band we call the Milky Way was called the galaxias kuklos (“milky circle”). The name survived in Hellenistic Greek and then Latin in the shortened form galaxias (“milky”), which was picked up in turn by English as Galaxias/Galaxia/Galaxie in the 15th century. Early learned uses show explicit awareness of the connection with the Greek gala/galaktikos (“milk”/“milky”), and in fact the English adjective galactic was first used in the sense of “milky” or “lactic” (Antoine-François de Fourcroy, Elements of Natural History and Chemistry, 1790). The modern use of galactic to mean “related to a galaxy” doesn’t appear until the 19th century. Speaking of lactic, the English word lactic itself is derived from the Latin lac/lactis (“milk”/“milky”), which suggestively recalls the sound and meaning of the Greek galaktikos (“milky”), so galactic and lactic may be as related as they sound. No actual evidence has yet been found, though, of a direct linguistic link.

Over the centuries, the meaning of the English word galaxy has evolved. Around the turn of the 16th century, it came to be used by extension to refer to any brilliant display or collection, including dazzling groups of remarkable people. Until recent centuries, the phrases the galaxy and the universe were used more or less interchangeably, but the rise of modern astronomy changed the picture. The word galaxy is now used to denote any isolated collection of billions of stars, reflecting the realization that our Milky Way is a galaxy among many.


The roots of the word universe go back to Old French and thereby classical Latin. In Latin, the prefix uni- stood for unus (“one”) and versus (“turned”) was a participial form of vertō (“to turn”). The noun universum therefore meant “everything” quite literally “rolled into one”. It could refer to a sum total or to the sum total of the whole world, and this latter sense is what survived in the Old French derivative univers. In the 1300s, the French phrase en univers meant “universally”, and English first borrowed the noun universe in this form—as seen in Geoffrey Chaucer’s early use of in vniuerse to mean something like “in every time and place” (Troilus and Criseyde, 1385). The use of universe as a noun in its own right meaning “cosmos” only caught on centuries later—George Puttenham thus refers in 1589 to “the world or vniuers” (The Arte of Poesie)—but it remains the dominant form and meaning of the word universe in English today.

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