Why Do We Call Our Planet “Earth”?

Why Do We Call Our Planet “Earth”?

Our solar system is an incredible place, filled with celestial bodies with exciting and intriguing names. For instance, there’s the planet Venus, named after the Roman goddess of love, or Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, which is named after the king of this ancient pantheon. And then there is Earth, our planet, which it has to be admitted, has a less impressive name. But why is this the case? How did we end up naming our home, the only planet most of us will ever experience, after another word for a clod of dirt?

The answer is “it’s complicated”, but it reveals much about how people have thought about the planet or their “world” (which are not necessarily the same things), as well as its relationship to other celestial objects in the night sky.

Obviously, not everyone refers to the planet as “Earth”. It is a name that is mostly associated with Western cultures, especially those that speak English.  

The name “Earth” has quite a complex etymology. Unlike the names of the other planets in our solar system, the name clearly does not derive from Roman mythology. Instead, the word comes from the Germanic word “erda”, and the Old Anglo-Saxon word “ertha”, meaning something like “the ground that you walk on”.

The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic cultural group that invaded and occupied England and Wales after the fall of the Roman Empire (around 450 CE).

As with so many stories of conquest and settlement, aspects of the invader’s culture and language mutated and shifted over time. This eventually led to the emergence of Old English in the mid-7th century, the earliest recorded form of the English spoken language. From Old English, we get the word “eorþe” (pronounced er-thuh), which basically means “soil”, “ground”, “country”, or “land”.

Other Northern European languages have similar words for the planet. For instance, Old Frisian had “erthe”, while the modern German language has the word “Erde”, and the Dutch have “Aarde”. It is likely all these words, ours included, derive from a Proto-Germanic term that has now been lost to history.

For the various cultures mentioned here, their respective word for “Earth” had a deeper meaning than just referring to the floor. As with many contemporary societies, the people were intimately tied to the soil for their very survival. It was the place they inhabited and the place where life and much of their food emerged from. It sustained them and, in many cases, would eventually hold them when they died.

But it was also the place of material things, our “world”, as opposed to the otherworldly lands like the underworld or the heavens where the gods lived. Although in many mythologies these supernatural spaces were sometimes connected to the realm of humans, they were nevertheless “separated” from us. We see similar ideas to this in the Old English word “middangeard” which, like the Norse Midgard, referred to the inhabited world and could be used with “eorþe”.

In cultures touched by Latin traditions, the word “terra” is often used to refer to the planet. Once again, “terra” means land and forms the root of modern English words like “terrestrial”, “subterranean”, or “extraterrestrial”.

The word “terra” comes from the Romans, from whom we also get the names of the other planets in our solar system. They named these celestial spheres after their gods due to how they appeared to the naked eye, long before telescopes were invented.

And this is an important point. For centuries, dating back to the Babylonians and maybe further, our planet, the thing we walk upon, was not understood as a “planet” like the others, which may explain why it has such a “mundane” name.

It was only with the rejection of geocentrism and the acceptance of heliocentrism in the 16th and 17th centuries that the Earth was recognized as another planet, rather than the center of the universe, around which everything else revolved.  

Although it is not completely clear, it seems that while our understanding of the “world” expanded at this time, the word we used to refer to the thing we live on did not change. We remained tied to the soil just as we always had been. 

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