the Milky Way

the Milky Way – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Steve Jurvetson




The noun galaxy appeared in Middle English in the sense of the Milky Way, the diffuse band of light stretching across the night sky that consists of millions of faint stars, nebulae, etc., within our Galaxy.

The first known user of this word was the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1342-1400) in The House of Fame (circa 1380):

“Now,” quod he thoo, “cast up thyn ye.
Se yonder, loo, the Galaxie,
Which men clepeth the Milky Wey
For hit ys whit (and somme, parfey,
Kallen hyt Watlynge Strete).”
“Now,” he said then, “lift up your eyes; lo, see yonder the Galaxy, which men call the Milky Way, because it is white; and some, in faith, call it Watling Street.”

This noun is from post-classical Latin galaxias, denoting the Milky Way, from Hellenistic Greek γαλαξίας (= galaxias) — short for γαλαξίας κύκλος (= galaxias kuklos), milky vault — composed of the ancient Greek γάλα/γαλακτ- (= gala/galakt-), milk, and the suffix -ίας (= -ias). Greek gala/galakt- is probably related to Latin lac/lact-, milk (from this Latin word, English has the combining form lacto-, as in lactoprotein, the protein component of milk; galactic acid is a synonym of lactic acid, an acid formed in sour milk.)

The Latin names corresponding to galaxias kuklos were circulus lacteus, milky circle, and via lactea, milky way. From the latter, the Romance languages have the following terms:
– French: Voie lactée
– Catalan: Via Làctia
– Spanish: Vía Láctea
– Portuguese: Via Láctea
– Italian: Via Lattea
– Romanian: Calea Laptelui and Calea Lactee.

Also modelled on Latin via lactea, English Milky Way is comparable to the following Germanic names:
– German Milchstraße
– Dutch Melkweg
– Norwegian Melkeveien
– Danish Mælkevejen.

And Swedish has Vintergatan, literally Winter Way, perhaps because, in the northern hemisphere, the Milky Way is most clearly visible during winter.

In the above-mentioned passage from The House of Fame, Geoffrey Chaucer mentioned Watling Street as a name for the Milky Way. Similarly, in On the Properties of Things, a translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum, originally written by Bartholomaeus Anglicus (floruit 1230-50), John Trevisa (circa 1342-1402?) wrote of

þat cercle, þat is calde [= that circle, that is called] Lacteus, and Galaxia, also Watelynge strete.

Watling Street was the English name given in pre-Conquest times to the Roman road running from near London through St Albans (Hertfordshire) to Wroxeter (Shropshire). From the 12th century onwards, the name was extended to Roman roads leading from London to the southeast and from Wroxeter to the north or west.

The Milky Way received other popular names from famous highways, especially pilgrimage routes. In England it was also called Walsingham Way because the Milky Way was supposed to have been used as a guide by pilgrims travelling to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (Norfolk).

In the European languages, a widespread designation of this kind was the Way of Saint James. It is a reference to pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela (Galicia, in northwest Spain), where the remains of Saint James (Santiago) the Apostle are said to have been brought after his death. For example, in Convivio (Banquet – 1304-07), the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote of

la Galassia, cioè quello bianco cerchio che lo vulgo chiama la Via di Sa’ Iacopo.
the Galaxy, that is, that white circle which the common people call the Way of Saint James.

This corresponds to le chemin de Saint-Jacques in French and to el Camino de Santiago in Spanish, hence La Vía Láctea, the title of the 1969 satirical film about the route to Compostela, by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel (1900-83).

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