Words & Stuff

ZZ: What's That up in the Sky?

(27 December 1998)

The word that was my favorite Hangman word for years has six letters, none repeating. It makes a good Hangman word if the guessers guess according to the frequency table --

Oh, okay, I suppose I have to take time out here to explain the frequency table, for those who don't do cryptograms. It's a list of the letters used in a given language, in order of the frequency of their appearance. For instance, in English, E is the most common letter, followed by T, then A. Different tables compiled at different times from different sources may diverge slightly after that -- the one I first learned, as listed in Alvin's Secret Code by Clifford B. Hicks, starts out ETAONRISHDLFCMUGY, but most others I've seen since then have started out ETAOINSHRDLU. Frequency tables (including letter-pair-frequency and word-frequency tables as well as single-letter frequency) are usually compiled through analysis of sources like newspaper articles, and therefore aren't necessarily accurate when applied to any given text, but they're likely to be roughly accurate for a text that wasn't specially constructed to evade such analysis. Such tables are most often used in deciphering coded messages; you make a frequency table for the symbols in the coded message, and you compare it to the standard frequencies for the source language, and you make some educated guesses and try possibilities until the message starts to come clear. Of course this method only works on simple substitution ciphers (where each character in the coded message corresponds to exactly one letter of the plaintext alphabet).

...So anyway, I usually guess Hangman words using some approximation of the frequency table, at least to start. And the word I have in mind has no E or T in it, and no repeating letters, and its consonants are D, C, and Z, none of which are among the five most common consonants.

Unfortunately, most people playing Hangman start by guessing the vowels, which brings them in short order to -O-IA-, and that's generally enough to give them the word before they hang themselves.

I invite readers to send in good (difficult) Hangman words, common enough to be known to all players but with letter patterns likely to foil standard guessing patterns. But that's not really what I meant to write about this week.

The zodiac (a word derived from Greek words having to do with carved figures representing the zodiacal signs) consists of twelve constellations, spaced around the Earth roughly in the path apparently followed by the sun as it apparently moves across the sky. (Or, to put it another way, roughly in the plane of the ecliptic.)

The signs of the zodiac are of course not the only constellations (even in the European tradition). There are 88 standard constellations, most named after figures from Roman mythology.

The planets are also named after figures from Roman mythology -- mostly named by the ancient Romans after the Olympian gods, but also including slight outliers like Saturn (father of Jupiter) and Uranus, father of the Titans. ("Saturn" is the source of the word "Saturday"; also of "saturnalia," originally a gift-giving festival in December that was later adapted into Christmas and New Year's, now just a term for a big out-of-control party.) Robert Anton Wilson speculated that after Pluto, if two more planets were discovered they'd be named Mickey and Goofy... The moons of the various planets are also mostly named after mythological figures, from Phobos and Deimos (sons, or possibly horses or attendants, of Ares) out through Charon; the exceptions are the moons of Uranus, which are named after characters from English literature. Some of the moons' discoverers attempted to name them after various political figures, but tradition prevailed.

The Roman god Jupiter (also known as Jove) is usually identified with the Greek chief god Zeus; similar correspondences are made between Mercury and Hermes, Venus and Aphrodite, Mars and Ares (apparently etymologically unrelated to "Aries" even though Mars is the planet associated with the astrological sign of Aries), Saturn and Cronus, Neptune and Poseidon, Pluto and Hades. And others, of course, like Juno/Hera, Minerva/Athene, Diana/Artemis, and Vulcan/Hephaestus. Uranus and Apollo had pretty much the same names in both pantheons.

Quite a few modern English words derive from classical mythology. From the story of Sisyphus we get the adjective Sisyphean, referring to a futile task; Hercules' seven labors are commemorated by calling other difficult tasks Herculean; bureaucracies that refuse to make individual exceptions are Procrustean. In somewhat more common words, "jovial" is from Jove (though he's usually anything but, in the stories), and "volcano" from fiery Vulcan. "Martial" (and thus "martial law" and "court-martial") comes from Mars (and you thought it was men that came from Mars); "venereal" disease traces its roots to Venus. "January" comes from two-faced Janus, looking forward and back at old year and new, patron of beginnings and endings. And to bring things back full circle to the constellations, we have items named not after mythological characters but after the heavenly bodies that are in turn named after those characters -- such as the Perseid meteor shower, so called because it appears to originate in the constellation of Perseus, and the element uranium, named after the planet Uranus.

(I'm aware that there are plenty of other world mythologies of note beyond Roman and Greek, and I know that some of them even describe other constellations. I don't know much about those other constellations, though, and this column seemed long enough without them, so I left 'em out.)

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>