or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, August 05, 2005

It's All Greek To Someone

In today's "Ask the Pilot", a weekly feature on Salon.com, we have the perfect example of how etymology (and a scrap of carelessness) can lead someone astray.

Next, reader Jason Langlois chimes in with a semi-plausible theory to explain the curiously named Air Atlanta, the Icelandic operator with a fleet of Boeing 747s.

"In Greek myth," he tells us, "Atlanta was an incredibly fast woman who won every race she ran. She refused to marry anyone unless he could beat her in a foot race. Milanion courted Atlanta and appealed to Aphrodite for help. He was given three golden apples. During the race, he dropped the apples to distract Atlanta. When she stopped to pick them up, he was able to win the race and marry her.

Well, maybe, but why an Icelandic airline would dip that far into Hellenic fable is difficult to fathom. (Though I suppose you could say the same for the founders of the capital of Georgia.) If it's any lesson, the Greek flag carrier avoids this messy game altogether, going with the more purely historical Olympic Airlines. Meanwhile, purposely or not, Air Atlanta allows this debate to fester by refusing to return calls or e-mails.

Oops. The name of the huntress who was bested in athletics and love by Hippomenes (also known as Milanion) wasn't Atlanta, but Atalanta. The word "Atlanta" (as well as the obviously related "Atlantic", the adjectival form) comes from the Atlas mountains in what is now Libya, on which the heavens were believed to rest by the Greeks. This also gave birth to the legend of Atlas, the Titan who bore the vault of the heavens on his shoulders. "Atalanta", on the other hand, is from a Greek word which means "balanced" or "equal in weight": the two names are etymologically unrelated.

Atlas, by the way, is often depicted as holding the world on his shoulders, the better to explain how his name was given to a book of maps. But in Greek legend, it wasn't the Earth he held there, but the sky. Otherwise, how could Hercules (in the course of his twelve labours) have taken the burden while Atlas ran off to find the three golden apples?


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