June 5, 2013

Case File #013.06.05: ASTRONAUT

Astronaut was coined in 1880 by English author Percy Greg, who formed the noun by combining the Greek words astron, meaning “heavens” or “stars,” and nautes, meaning “sailor.” Thus, astronaut literally means “star sailor,” and Greg used it as the name for a Mars-bound spaceship in his science-fiction novel Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record. But when American science-fiction writers appropriated the word in the late 1920s, they used it to refer not to spaceships but to the people traveling within the spaceships, and by the time the United States established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (or NASA) in 1958, astronaut had become the common English term for “a person trained to work as a crew member aboard a spacecraft” and, more generally, “any person who travels beyond the Earth's atmosphere.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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