Daily Archives: September 2, 2013

perihelion

This word makes me think of Murray Perahia, a well-known concert pianist, but it also makes me think of Trent Reznor and Stig Larsson, as well as sci-fi author Dan Simmons and a British perfume chain.

It makes me think of Reznor and Larsson because one of the pieces on Reznor’s sound track for the movie of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is called “Perihelion.” It’s a brooding, atmospheric piece, the sort of thing I used to hear on CBC Radio 2’s program Nightline when I was delivering newspapers at 5 am in Edmonton under the aurora borealis. It all fit together very well then. Of course I didn’t hear this piece at the time, as Larsson hadn’t even written the book in 1989. But the style fits. Never mind that I never delivered papers at perihelion – I did it for less than a year and missed the dead of winter.

It makes me think of Dan Simmons because it seems like a name for a book he could have written. But no, that’s Hyperion. But there are books out there called Perihelion, including a book in the Isaac Asimov’s Robot City series (the book is by William F. Wu) and a sci-fi erotica title by Sylvia Walters.

And it makes me think of a British perfume chain because the chain is called Penhaligon’s. Which to my ears has an echo of perihelion.

This word also seems somehow arch to me. The /p/ at the front is pert, perhaps prim but perhaps perky, but a /h/ in the middle of a word always seems to have a current of violence or vehemence or some reptilian, perhaps ophidian, quality, especially when it is so heavily exhaling between two vowels. Could it all be the heavy purr-exhaling of a lion?

It’s Greek, originally, as you may have noted. The peri typically means ‘around, about’; the helion is from the root for ‘sun’. The ancient Greeks didn’t use this word because they had no reason to; there was no conception of bodies orbiting the sun on elliptical paths until rather later, and it didn’t really seem necessary to invent a word just to talk about Daedalus and Icarus. Johannes Kepler invented the word in a Latinized form as perihelium in 1609, and it was soon thereafter modified into a purely Greek form. It’s the opposite of aphelion (which is pronounced as ap plus helion, not a plus phelion). In an elliptical orbit around the sun, the aphelion is when the body (planet, comet, asteroid) is farthest from the sun, and the perihelion is when it is closest.

So how’s your memory of the astronomy you learned in school? When is the earth closest to the sun in its elliptical orbit? Not when it’s summer in the northern hemisphere… Nope, earth’s perihelion is January 3, and its aphelion July 4. I will glide past the fact that the earth is farthest from its source of light on the American national holiday. There are no national holidays on January 3, although I do note that on that day in 1496 Leonardo da Vinci tested a flying machine… without success.

Coxsackie

You may be fortunate enough to go through life without reason to encounter this name, but since I make my living handling information about health, I inevitably met it in the term Coxsackie virus (also sometimes written closed up, as is a standard practice for virus names: Coxsackievirus).

I should first say that, as you have probably guessed, the virus is named after a place. This is common enough for viruses; other places so honoured include Norwalk, Ohio, and Lyme, Connecticut. The place in this case is – can you guess it? Oh, let me give you some clues.

First of all, it’s morphologically opaque; the word appears to be a concatentation of English morphemes that make no sense together, so it’s probably an Anglicization from an indigenous language of a colonized place. The use of c rather than k suggests it was rendered into English somewhat more than a century ago. The use of x is especially telling, particularly in xs: since the x represents a “ks” sound and not something like “sh” from an adapted orthography, there’s a decent chance it’s from a place that had some Dutch influence at one time or another (the Dutch, remember, are the people who gave us names such as Schillebeeckx and Hendrix). Where might that be? Well, think of Tuxedo Park, New York, not too far north of New York City.

Indeed, Coxsackie is not all that much farther up the Hudson River, in New York. Its name comes from ma-kachs-hack-ing (that’s how it’s spelled in Wikipedia, though it’s not an exquisitely phonetic spelling), which was rendered by the Dutch as Koxhackung. The English, when they took over, kept the x but changed the K to a C, as was their wont in the 1700s. And they conformed it to familiar shapes: cox, sack, and the suffix ie.

I think I probably don’t need to point out that, aside from the effect of those bits, the overtones of this word are on the impolite side for most readers. But the sound of it is very crisp and mechanical, like the loading and cocking of a gun or the operation of an old printing press.

Now, then, to the unpleasant bit: Coxsackie virus. The virus was named after an outbreak in the eponymous town. The Coxsackie virus is in the same family as the polio virus, and it has some pretty nasty effects. It is among the leading causes of meningitis, and it can lead to a variety of disabilities. Read a little bit more about the discovery of the virus etc. at virology blog (yes, there is a blog for that, in fact probably more than one; there’s a blog for everything).

One thing that I note about the Coxsackie virus is that belongs to the enterovirus genus Picornaviridae. This seems somehow just a little glancingly suitable, as it has a rather off-colour overtone to go with the blue overtones of Coxsackie. I mean the p and, soon after, orn. You might miss that with all the other overtones, such as pico, corn, and corona, but if you’ve been primed for it, it’s there.

And if you’re wishing you hadn’t gotten started with what Coxsackie sounds like, well, be glad that it’s just the sound of it that’s infecting your brain. If you had caught the actual virus, that would really suck, eh?