Is this a familiar word? Does it look like an error?

You might be familiar with Micronesia, a group of islands in the Pacific. There are also Melanesia and Polynesia. But is there a Macronesia? I don’t remember one… do I have amnesia?

Not, not Macronesia. Macaronesia. And it’s nowhere near the other nesias.

First of all, let’s sort out what this nesia is: it comes from Greek νῆσοι nésoi ‘islands’. So Polynesia is ‘many islands’, Melanesia ‘black islands’, Micronesia ‘small islands’. If there were a Macronesia it would be ‘big islands’. But what’s this macaroni we get instead? Is this islands of pasta? And what’s amnesia? “I am an island”?

No, amnesia is not from am plus nesia; it’s from a plus mnesia, a root referring to memory (think of mnemonic). There’s another false island, akinesia ‘loss or impairment of the ability to move’: it’s from a plus kinesia, using that root for movement you see in kinetic and telekinesis.

Macaronesia, on the other hand, is islands; it means ‘blessed islands’ or ‘islands of the blessed’ or ‘islands of the fortunate’, from μακάρων makarón ‘blessed’ (I put an accent on the ó to signify length but it would actually be better with a macron on it, ō). Right, OK, so who has these blessed islands? Where are they? Macassar? Macao? Cameroon? Macon?

The Atlantic, in fact, west of Europe and Africa. Not heard of them? You have, just not as a group, because really they’re not a unified group. They’re several sets of islands that have in common two things: they’ve never been part of a continent, and they’re in the Altantic west of Europe and Africa. Some of them have some flora and fauna in common as well, for instance laurel forests. The archipelagos that make up Macaronesia are the Azores, the Madeira Islands, the Canary Islands, and the Cape Verde Islands.

So how do they come to have this name? Ancient Greek geographers gave the name to mythical islands west of the Straits of Gibraltar. This was the western paradise where heroes or those with especially pure souls would go when they died, where it was always summer and they had an endless feast of delights (presumably including macaroons). These days the islands of Macaronesia fill up with British holidayers on their characteristic blowzy binges, where they drink themselves into forgetfulness and immobility.

One response to “Macaronesia

  1. Macaronesia is, of course, right next to the Islets of Langerhans. A sweet place indeed!

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