Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Mostly, this is a blog about words or concepts I see fairly frequently, sometimes even use, but don't really know as much about as I ought. Every once in awhile though, a word will sneak into a perfectly ordinary sentence that I could swear I have never heard used before. I don't mean technical words, or foreign ones, I mean ones that the writer of the sentence uses casually, as though it would be easily transparent to the common reader. If the common reader is anything like me, though, they are almost certainly wrong.
"Orrery" is one of those words. I came across it in the forward to The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb. Although I haven't gotten any further than the introduction, it looks like an interesting book, claiming to be an exploration of a now vanished, rural France that Robb thinks has not been adequately charted. He knows urban France and he knows the France of literature, which he has studied, but this France he apparently discovered largely by biking around it.
Anyway, in attempting to give an idea of his objectives, he speaks of trying to give "a sense of the orrery of disparate separate spheres" Now quite frankly, I have no idea what he talking about there. I can plug in various guesses--disonance, connection, echoing--but really, none of it would I stake a dollar on. Maybe we better just move on to the definition.
...All right, all right--I must have seen this word before, even if I don't remember it. An orrery is a mechanical model that illustrates the orbits of planets and moons around the sun or a sunlike center. I don't know if Robb's model is truly heliocentric, but I assume if it is that sun would be Paris--or perhaps the King. And of course his sentence makes perfect sense now. I suppose spheres should have been the key.
When I read that these mechanisms were often operated by clockwork, I thought "Damn--I knew this word had something to do with hours!" But my etymological investigations showed me to be wrong again. This one however, could not have been deduced.
An orrery is called that because it was named after Charles Boyle, the fourth Earl of Orrery, who was also and more familiarly to American ears, the Earl of Cork. (Sometimes it seems like all roads lead to Cork in my life, though I don't know exactly why they should.) Was Lord Boyle a famous scientist in his spare time? Well, possibly, but in fact this invention was thought up by George Graham (so, though English, possibly some sort of distant relative of mine) put together by a J. Rowley, and given to the Earl and named in his honor.
According to Wikipedia, Orrery comes from the Gaelic orbhraighe, or Orb's people, so a tribe, which later became the name of the territory and then the barony. I can't find out more about this Orb or Orbh, but I hope he--if it was a he--liked to ponder the night sky in his time. It would be fitting.