Sunday, July 02, 2006

Grin and Bear It

Q. My mother says that the Arctic got its name from a Latin word that meant bear, because there are polar bears there. And because there are no polar bears at the southern pole, it was named Antarctica (anti-) to show the absence of bears.

A. There are two parallel realities going on here, but they don't overlap all the way. The Australian Antarctic Division confirms that there are polar bears in the Arctic and none in the Antarctic, but that’s not how the continents were named.

The ancient Greeks knew about the Arctic and named it after the northern constellation —Makros Arktos (or Ursa Major, as we know it from the Latin), translated as “Great Bear” in English. The Greeks were big fans of symmetry, so sight unseen, they decided that there must be a similar cold land mass at the opposite pole: AntArktos, or opposite the bear.

Considering that it wasn’t until the 1820’s that organized exploration of Antarctica took place, that was pretty astute reckoning.

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