Nature and Etymology

In addition to being a nature nut, I am also a bit of a word geek. While reading, I can get hung up on words: why this word or that word - where does that word come from, why is it used in this way? And there I go…down the rabbit hole.

After last night’s beautiful snowfall, it is only fitting that today I am working on some research for next weekend’s Winter Hike. I want to be able to provide our hikers with an experience that is a bit more than the run-of-the-mill nature walk in winter. Some topics are discussed all the time, everywhere, and are nothing new. How dull. Nope - I am in search of a few nuggets that might make our participants say “Hm! Who knew! Isn’t that interesting?”

Well, I didn’t get two pages into a book about winter when I came across my first SQUIRREL! It showed up in the early history of how the people of the world started to take note of the seasons and record them (the most familiar record to most of us is Stonehenge). As the years spun on, we moved from thinking of the Earth as the center of the universe to knowing that our planets move around our sun, and our sun is on the edge of our galaxy, which is only one small galaxy in the greater expanse known as outer space. It is all rather daunting.

But what stopped me in my tracks was the discussion about the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. You may know these terms: they are two “lines” that encircle the planet, one north of the equator, and the other south of the equator. But what do they mean…and why in the world are they called what they are called? It was primarily the latter question that sent me down the rabbit hole.

First, why “tropic?” Most of us probably hear the word “tropic” and think of palm trees, ocean breezes, sunshine and beaches. Maybe we think of rainforests, rainfall, and high humidity. But what does any of this have to do with these lines? Do they demarcate the boundaries of the “tropical zone?”

Secondly, why “Cancer” and “Capricorn?” These are signs of the Zodiac - what do they have to do with beaches and rainforests?

It turns out that none of this has anything to do with the tropics as we know them today. These names were assigned over 2000 years ago (in the last centuries BCE). But first, a little science:

At the time of the Summer Solstice, the sun is directly overhead along the line known today as the Tropic of Cancer (which is above the equator) - the furthest north the sun travels. And at the Winter Solstice, it is directly overhead along the line known today as the Tropic of Capricorn (below the equator) - the furthest south it travels. Once it hits these points, the sun starts to head once more in the other direction. Thus we have our long summer days and our short winter days.



Now for some history. Two-thousand plus years ago, the Sun was actually within the constellation of Cancer in June, and within the constellation of Capricorn in December. According to the website, the sun was in Taurus for the last Summer Solstice, and during last Winter Solstice, just a month ago, it was in Sagittarius. Nothing is so constant as change.

And here’s where the etymology comes in. According to Etymology Online, the word “tropic” comes from the “late 14c., "either of the two circles in the celestial sphere which describe the northernmost and southernmost points of the ecliptic," from Late Latin tropicus "of or pertaining to the solstice" (as a noun, "one of the tropics"), from Latin tropicus "pertaining to a turn," from Greek tropikos "of or pertaining to a turn or change; of or pertaining to the solstice" (as a noun, "the solstice," short for tropikos kyklos), from trope "a turning" (from PIE root *trep- "to turn").

The notion is of the point at which the sun "turns back" after reaching its northernmost or southernmost point in the sky. Extended 1520s to the corresponding latitudes on the earth's surface (23 degrees 28 minutes north and south); meaning "region between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn" is from 1837.“

The short version of all that: Tropic basically means to turn - these are the imaginary lines on the planet where the sun has moved the furthest in said direction (north or south) before heading back the other way, thus creating the cycle of our seasons. And in the 16th century the term was assigned to the Torrid Zone, or the region of the Earth between the two Tropics, which is why we now think of beaches, palm trees and rainforests when we hear the word ”tropic.” (And the word “solstice,” just in case you were wondering, is from the Latin sol, meaning sun, and stice, meaning standing or still - in other words, the solstices are when the sun stands still, and then turns around and goes back in the other direction. Isn’t language fascinating?)

So there we are: two questions that have bothered me for years (why “tropic” and why Capricorn and Cancer) have finally been answered…all thanks to a nature hike at Severson Dells.

Do you have a nature-related conundrum that we might be able to solve? If it is a winter question, we might just address it on our hike next weekend. Consider joining us (but please call and let us know you are coming - we want to be sure to have enough leaders on hand so everyone has a good experience).

In the meantime, I hope you get out and enjoy this wonderful new snowfall!