How to Refer to the Milky Way Across the Globe

The route of scattered straw. Silver river. Calm.
milkyway650.jpg
Our home galaxy -- which, in English, we call the Milky Way -- over California's Lake Manzanita (Josh Hawley/Flickr)

Silver, sweeping, seemingly translucent, the Milky Way is one of the few celestial bodies that can be seen nearly everywhere on the globe. It's one of the very few, moreover, that doesn't determine the parameters of daily life, as the sun or moon do.

Unlike Sol or Luna, too, we don't see it in news footage or receive updates on its condition. Its ubiquity is simple fact. So it becomes a canvas for language, as words and metaphor are carted around the watching planet. A few images dominate, though my favorite is the rarest, and the last.

Here's how to refer to our home galaxy across the planet:

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Armenian hard goghi chanaparh, or "The man who has stolen the straw." According to the Armenian astronomer Hayk Harutyunyan, the name comes from legend about the god of fire, Vahagn. "Vahagn," writes Harutyunyan, "contrived to steel some straw from Assyrian king Barsham once in a very cold winter and brought it to Armenia."(Vahagn's name itself seems to be of Indo-European origin, as it's similar to the Sanskrit words for god and fire.)

Arabic Darb Al-Tabbāna, or "Hay Merchants Way."

Chechen Ça Taxina Taça, or "the route of Scattered straw." Notice how many languages name the galaxy after hay. Harutyunyan writes:

The most striking in relation with [the Armenian name] is that while many nations use their own terms for Milky Way, in a huge area -- from the Gobi desert to the Atlantic coasts of Africa and from the North Caucasus and Danube to Ethiopia -- this dim celestial path's proper name is associated with a straw. This fact was used by some researchers to assert that such a name could be originated in Arabian language for they were nomads their all life depending on horses and consequently on the straw.

But the Armenian name is so old that it well predates any contact with Arabic civilization. It's possible, then, that the Armenian name traveled, after Arabian contact, to a huge swath of the world.

Chinese 銀河, or "Silver River." This name appears across east Asian languages:

Vietnamese Ngân Hà, "Silver River."

Korean 은하, eunha, or "Silver River." Uri Eunha refers directly to the Milky Way itself.

Faroese, Norwegian, and Icelandic Vetrarbreytin, Vinterbrauta, and Vetrarbrautin, respectively; or "Winter Way." The speakers of these three Polar languages can best see the galaxy during the winter, when their night extends far into the mid-day hours, so the body takes the season's name.

Greek Galaxias Kyklos, or "Milky Circle." A number of different Greek myths explain the origin of this name, some involving the suckling of Zeus's son, Heracles; others telling an earlier tale, between the Greek titans Rhea and Cronus. In both myths, the galaxy is divine mother's milk. Galaxias, which descends from the Greek gala, for milk, becomes our galaxy.

Latin Via Lactea, or "Milky Way," a translation of the Greek. This nickname travels through Latin, through the Romance language and beyond. Some version of "Milky Way" is used in Basque, Bosnian, Czech, Dutch, French, Polish, Portugeuse, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Spanish, Welsh, and, of course, English.

Estonian Linnutee, or "Way of the Birds." A Baltic folktale told that birds, on their southern migration, followed the path of the galaxy across the sky. And so they do, according to an Odense University study from the past decade.

Sanskrit Mandakini, "Calm" or "unhurried." This may be my favorite.

Via Colin Dickey on Twitter. After seeing Dickey's tweet, Charlie Loyd examined the phrase "to go the winter way" in contemporary Danish on his Tumblr, and it's there I saw the link.

Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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