or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, September 05, 2005


Heather Havrilesky is Salon.com's television writer (it's called "I Like To Watch", which I suppose is a reference to Being There), and she's generally likeable, amusing and well worth reading, but in today's column she started with this paragraph:

Once, a long time ago, I had this really weird dream where I was walking down the street, and all of a sudden everything around me started to float up toward the sky, and there was this intense pressure in my ears. What the hell was going on? Using my immense powers of deduction, I quickly concluded that the world had actually stopped spinning and therefore there was no gravity and the atmosphere was floating away and life on Earth was over, done, kaput! Smell ya later, world!

Is this a common misunderstanding? Do most people think that the spinning of a planet is what somehow generates gravity?

Maybe they do. But they're wrong. Gravity is proportional to mass, and I could get into a big discussion about it but I won't, because it's irrelevant; all we need to know is that the reason we don't go flying off into space is that the Earth is big, not that it's spinning. If the planet suddenly became massless, then it could spin all it wanted but there'd be nothing to tether the atmosphere or anything else to its surface.

"Gravity" is from Latin "gravis", "heavy". This is also the source of "gravid", which means "pregnant", as well as "aggravate"--originally, "make heavier"--and "grief". It's also, of course, the source of "grave". But which one? There are two different kinds of "grave" in English, with two very different provenances.

"Grave" meaning "sombre" is related to "gravis"; a heavy heart leads to a downcast countenance. (This is also clearly related to the sense of "grieve" and "grief".) Other senses suggesting danger or darkness--"a grave situation", "a grave wound"--are from this source as well. But the grave in which we bury people, although one might sensibly enough think they'd be related, is from somewhere else altogether: Old English "graef", from "grafan", "to dig". It is this which gives us the word "grave" meaning "to carve", and its siblings "graven" and "engraved"--adjectives for things which have been dug--as well as "groove".


Blogger Connally said...

thank you--that was quite helpful!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 11:23:00 PM  

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