On ‘perigee’ and ‘peruke’

25 Mar

The papers have been filled with stories about the Super Moon recently.  It’s apparently 31,000 miles closer than normal and 14% brighter.  I can’t say I have noticed a difference myself!

The word they’ve been using to describe the moon is ‘perigee’ – which is a word I’d never heard before.  It doesn’t sound like an astronomical word to me, more like a cooking technique or an 18th century ball game.

I did have to admit when I first read ‘perigee’ in the news, my first thought wasn’t of moons or other astronomical bodies; it was something a lot more down to earth – wigs!

After looking the word up, I realised I was confusing with ‘perigee’ with ‘peruke’, which does actually mean ‘wig’.

And contrary to my expectations, ‘perigee’ does have a proper astronomical meaning.  It refers to the point of an orbit at which the satellite is closest to earth (so is entirely logical in the context of the Super Moon!), or the time of the year when the sun is lowest in the sky at noon (such as the Winter Solistice).

The word derives from the Latinperigeum’, and comes into English in the late 16th century via Middle French.   It doesn’t really get used any more outside of the specific astronomical context, although it occasionally crops up to refer more generally to the lowest point or ‘nadir’

And what I didn’t realise is that ‘perigee’ is the opposite of ‘apogee’, which is a word I did know.  If ‘perigee’ is the closest point, then ‘apogee’ is the furthest point – and both words are recorded in English for the first time at the same time.  It also has an astronomical meaning but we use it more commonly to simply refer to the ‘peak’.

It’s curious how ‘apogee’ has become more popular in ‘perigee’ – both words came into English together, and both seem equally useful.  I wonder if there are any other pairs of words that have shared a similarly rich dad / poor dad fate.

‘Peruke’ is nothing to do with the literal moon – although as it’s commonly associated with bald heads, I’d say it’s pretty familiar with moons of one sort.

Fascinatingly, ‘peruke’ once meant a full, natural head of hair – and now means the complete opposite, a wig that imitates the hair.  The origins of the word are French – perruque – but beyond that, the etymology is extremely unclear.  It’s speculated whether the word is related to ‘parakeet’ – I guess a wig and some brightly-coloured feathers are both plumage of a sort.

After reading the OED online, I just wanted to compliment the writers on the definition of ‘wig’ – isn’t this a lovely piece of writing?

An artificial covering of hair for the head, worn to conceal baldness or to cover the inadequacy of the natural hair, as a part of professional, ceremonial, or formerly of fashionable, costume (as still by judges and barristers, formerly also by bishops and other clergymen), or as a disguise (as by actors on the stage).

So big moons and bald heads – a great start to a weekend!


13 Responses to “On ‘perigee’ and ‘peruke’”

  1. DG MARYOGA March 28, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    perigee of Greek origin (peri= a preposition which means around + gaia=earth)
    it’s opposite is :
    apogee also of Greek origin (apo= far + gaia=earth
    It’s as simple as that
    All the best from Greece

    • Rum Ram Ruf April 5, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

      We owe so much to the Greeks, including large parts of our language! One of my favourite words derived from Greek is phlebotomist as it’s such a strange sounding word (and a very strange job!)

    • DG MARYOGA April 5, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

      Well,phlebotomist and phlebotomy.Indeed,interesting words : from phleba = vein + tomi = cut + (ist= sb who practises it).Besides,I am dead sure that dog owners know the word phlebotomus which is the formal word for the sand fly insect which transmits the Leishmaniasis disease.There is so much logic in the word….So far so good.
      However,I find very funny the fact that in the English language it is also used to describe skilled technicians or workers that have no connections with Medicine.Now,that I am thinking of it probably because both must be skillful…if you see what I mean.

      NB:In the Greek language,phlebotomus is also the surgical lancet.

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