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LRC Blog

July 8, 2010

Todd B. Krause

Naming Cometary Materials

N.B. The email exchange below may have been edited, e.g. to remove content not essential to the main point(s) or to standardize English spelling/grammar.


Hi J. and T.,

...I was hoping get a recommendation of a Norse word describing or related to wolves that might apply to a... "pack" grouping of cometary materials in space.

In early times icy materials may have spread across wide regions of the outer solar system perhaps from the orbit of Saturn, or thereabouts, and outwards. It may be hypothesised that large quantities of these icy materials may have been able to congregate at the same approximate orbital distance as the orbits of the giant planets, but either far ahead or behind the planet in orbit -- within the region of "Lagrangian points." Potentially large quantities of material might have assembled around the Lagrangian points in early times, and this concept is well illustrated in the theoretical origin of Earth's moon, [which] is widely thought to have been formed after Theia (an object that achieved the size of Mars) formed at one of Earth's Lagrangian points and then, after achieving about a tenth of the mass of the Earth, splashed into our planet. Even today, after the solar system has calmed down considerably, "Trojan" asteroids congregate around the Lagrangian points in front of and behind Jupiter.

So I got to wonder about a name that might be given to the potentially large collections of ice that might have formed around the Lagrangian points of the "ice giants" Uranus and Neptune. Carrying on the classical theme of the deific names of the planets so as to include the Titan Theia, the naming of the Trojans of Jupiter and the Trojans of other planets... I thought a Norse word with a wolf connection might be appropriately associated with a potentially large and dangerous assembly of ice.

Orbits of the early solar system have been interpreted to have interacted powerfully, with the result that planet sized assemblies of ice could have been flung across the solar system. These objects could then have struck any other object in the solar system or, alternatively, be thrown into the far reaches of space. They were provokable and potentially deadly.

I saw the words for wolf (freki, ulfr and valdyr) in your online dictionary and thought that one of these words might be used. I also realise that the Norwegian and Swedish for wolf is simply ulf and would be easier for non-linguists to pronounce than ulfr.

Your advice would be much appreciated.

G. K.


Dear G.,

Thank you very much for your email. As it turns out, I just happen to be a physicist by training, [specializing] in classical mechanics, and so your mention of Lagrangian points warmed my heart and provided a nice change of pace to my usual workday. What's more, I spent the academic year 2008-2009 teaching astronomy, so I find your email doubly fun!

When I talked to my colleague J. the other day and your email came up, I was still at a loss for a good suggestion. J. however immediately suggested Old Norse vargr. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that's a pretty darn good suggestion. The word actually derives from a Proto-Indo-European root *H_(2/3)wergh- meaning 'to commit a crime'. The ON noun therefore means 'felon' or 'criminal', but it has taken on a secondary meaning as 'wolf'. I guess the closet thing I can think of in English for this connection is the way we use the phrase 'lone wolf'... to connote being 'outside the law'. Of course it doesn't have the sense of 'group' that you would like. I'm sorry to say I don't have the word for 'pack' at the front of my brain... my focus is on the ancient languages, and I haven't run across such a word often enough for it to stick...

As I read your mention of the astronomers' practice of using deific names, I thought one other possibility that might interest you could be ON Fenrir. In Norse mythology, this wolf bit off the hand of the god Tyr, whose name is ultimately cognate with Dyaus in Sanskrit, Zeus in Greek, and Ju(ppiter) in Latin. Personally I find rather apropos the notion that Fenrir might be lurking in the shadows at the Lagrangian points ready to bite off the hand of the deity it follows. But maybe that's just me...

I hope these suggestions might prove helpful, if nothing else as points of departure in the search for still further options. Thank you again for contacting us, and please let me know if we can be of further assistance.

Kind regards, T. K.