Thursday, February 22, 2007

Heavenly Daze

Q. My husband and I listen to a local PBS station (WIAA, Interlochen), and every day it offers a feature with an odd title. We’d like to look up the word, but we can’t figure out how to spell it. It sounds something like uffemirus. Joy/Leland, MI

A. One of the problems with our phonetic system is that the very same sound can be represented by more than one letter combination. Here you have a word that starts with the schwa sound (uh), which can be represented by any of the vowels, depending on the circumstances. It’s followed in this case by the steady sound of air passing over the lower lip, held gently in place by the upper teeth. That could turn out to be f, ff, or ph.

The word you’re looking for is spelled ephemeris, and it refers to an almanac or calendar that contains astronomical or meteorological predictions for any given day: when the sun will rise and set, what stage the moon is in, which stars will be prominent, etc.

It comes from a Greek word that breaks into two parts: epi-, on or upon, and hemera, a day. So it’s a list of what shall transpire in the sky upon a given day. For a while, astronomers used a time construct called ephemeral time to predict precisely when stellar events would take place. This English major isn’t even going to pretend that he understands the math, so let me simply refer you to a web site:

Sidebar: U.S. Naval Observatory

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