Galax Etymology

Ben Seymour
07/27/12 06:33:02PM

Here is the history of the word "Galax" as sent to me by a scholar who was just shipped one of my Galax dulcimers. This is not to be confused with entomology which only includes words with 6 or more legs :)


How an Ancient Greek Word for a Mollusk

Became the Name of a Dulcimer

Ben, after ordering a galax dulcimer from you, I developed an irresistible urge to share with you information about the etymological origins and history of use of the ancient Greek word galax , as in galax dulcimer, although I will spare you some of more tangled and arcane parts of the linguistic history.And in putting together this gratuitous display of erudition, I hope to tell you more than you ever wanted to know about the galactic part of your work, but out of kindness to you there will be no footnotes.

The Greek stems of the word galax are "galact-" and "galax-" both of which mean "milk" or refer to a "milky white" color.

The first record of the Greek word galax occurs in the scientific writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (3 rd century B.C.).He was probably using the word to refer to a type of mollusk that has a dull white-colored shell.

The ancient Greek word galax first enters modern scientific language in 1753 A.D., through the work of the taxonomist Linnaeus, as a name for a genus of plants.However, botanically the word is now applied only to a specific evergreen plant that grows in the southeastern United States and is characterized by racemes of small white flowers, a plant we know as the musky smelling galax.

More recently, the town of Galax, Virginia (incorporated in 1906 A.D.), was named after the evergreen plant galax, which grows in the area.And subsequently the word galax has been applied to a specific type of mountain dulcimer commonly associated with the area of Galax, Virginia, i.e., the "galax dulcimer".

In considering the history of galax , we should also look at the etymologically related word galaxy , which comes to English from Greek by way of Latin and is first found in the poetry of Chaucer."Galaxy" is a shortened version of the original Greek phrase "galaxaios kuklos", "the milky circle", that is, the cluster of stars we know as the Milky Way.This word is now also applied in a general way to systems made up of stars and stellar matter, and it has a related adjective form galactic.

Furthermore, the word galaxy is now sometimes applied figuratively to a group of people who are all stars, e.g., a galaxy of legal minds.Thus, in this figurative usage, one could put together a group of really good galax dulcimer players and call them a galaxy of galaxers [grin].

Finally, as a side note, the stem forms "galact-" and "galax-", from which the Greek word galax was formed, do not occur in non-technical English vocabulary except in the words galaxy and its adjective galactic, as noted above. However, the stem form galact- does occur in words from contemporary English scientific vocabulary, words such as galactose, dysgalactia, agalactocrasia, galactischia, pneumogalactocele, androgalactozemia, and many others.

Thus, dear Ben, the Greek word galax etymologically travels through history from the lips of the Greek philosopher Aristotle to the nomenclature system of Linnaeus, and then to the evergreen named galax, and further to an eponymous railroad town in Virginia, where galax grows, and on to the galax dulcimer, and finally to your workshop in North Carolina, where galax dulcimers are being made.And dont forget the related side trip to the poet Chaucer and to the Milky Way galaxy and to scientific terminology.So, it appears that you, in making galax dulcimers, are part of a star-studded, milky white, botanical, poetic, taxonomic, musical, and etymological adventure.You, Ben, are etymologically truly galactic , but, one hopes, not galactemetic.


Port Angeles, WA

November 18, 2011

Postscript: OK, my apologies for the fact that I made up the word galactemetic (vomiting milk) just for fun. It was too hard to resist.Remarkably, I used to get paid for doing stuff like this.

Ben Seymour