Daily Archives: October 26, 2009


You know those family gatherings… Your whole tribe drive in and get together, say at Christmas, and rub shoulders for a while, maybe play some hockey (or table hockey), maybe get along or maybe there’s some friction. Seems like a suitable subject for tribology? Perhaps in parts, but likely not the parts you think. Which parts? Ah, there’s the rub.

This word is pronounced with the first syllable like tribe, not with a “short i“; it doesn’t sound like it’s the study of tribbles, however much you might want to cuddle up with them… though it could be the study of that cuddling. Tribology is not science fiction, you see; rather, it’s the science of friction.

Well, actually the science of surfaces rubbing together. Minimizing friction is often a matter of special concern. Lubrication engineering keeps the world running smoothly (remember: WD-40 for whatever doesn’t move that should – and duck tape for whatever moves that shouldn’t). In 1965, the chairman of a working group of lubrication engineers sought a nice, proper, scientific ology for his field. What did he do? He called the English Dictionary Department of the Oxford University Press. The person he spoke to relayed a Greek-derived suggestion given by one C.G. Hardie: tribo, from tribos “rubbing,” plus ology, which ultimately comes from logos, “word.” Tribology.

So, in other words, the Oxford English Dictionary not only knows exactly when and how this word came about, it (i.e., the people who make it) actually invented it. Those slippery beggars!

But of course it does run up against the effects of resemblance. The googly ology is fine and sets the tone and field well, but that trib – well, pace Chicago’s daily (Tribune is related to tribe – which is thought to come from the root that gives us three, but that’s a whole other story – and not to tribology), you’re likely to get some unexpected news. I can only hope it won’t cause tribulation (now, there’s a sibling to this word), but if it does, I will try apology. It just happens that the tribologist at your family gathering may ignore your family group dynamics (except inasmuch as they involve, for instance, lip gloss) in favour of studying your hockey puck’s slide… or getting bearings on the engines of the various cars parked out front.


In historical documents, it is not uncommon to see photos or other references to someone or something given with an approximate date such as circa 1900. (Words most often found near circa are B.C., A.D., photo, and a variety of round dates.) It may also be used occasionally in approximate recollection: “Circa 1975, I read a lot of Shazam! comic books.” But many people circle around this word uncertainly, not sure how it should be used. You may see signs on restaurants or stores declaring them to be “circa 1985” or “circa 1997.” What’s that about?

Well, it seems they think that circa, in photos of buildings from a certain time, for instance, means not “about” or “around” but rather “established” or “founded.” So we have a bit of a semantic circus, as it were. But if circa – and circus, for that matter – makes you think of circle, then you’re at the origin: a Latin root referring to circles and roundness. Circa is taken directly from the Latin for “around” or “about.” And the two round c‘s can only reinforce that effect.

Those two c’s were both pronounced [k] in the original Latin, though in English they have the tongue do a half-circuit in the mouth, from tip through middle (the /r/) to back. Another word that closely resembles circa has a similar pronunciational history, but with the added detail that it came from Greek but was passed through Latin to give us the c rather than k spelling: Circe.

What’s Circe? Rather, who is Circe: a sorceress whose place Odysseus (or Ulysses, in the Roman version) hung around for a while. Her name is from the Greek kirké, “falcon” (but is now said like “Sir See”). When Odysseus’s men arrived, they found what seemed like a circus menagerie of docile animals. In fact, they were previous visitors, drugged and transmogrified. Many of Odysseus’s men were soon thus transmogrified, too, but Odysseus was warned, and when he went to free his men, he was met by Hermes (in his pre-fashion-designer days!), who gave him a herb which would protect him from the spells of Circe so he could bargain with her effectively (which he did; the movie version of that part would be rated R or X). What was the herb? It was the holy herb moly (Greek molu). So by eating holy moly, he was protected from being transformed.

Which reminds me of Shazam! Its protagonist had only to invoke the name of the wizard Shazam to be transformed into Captain Marvel (good newsstand competition for Superman). It happens that characters in the Shazam! comic books liked to exclaim “Holy moly!” I read these comic books circa 1975, as I have said, but I did not learn until circa 15 minutes ago what holy moly originally referred to, before it became an expletive. And so I am come full circa, as it were.