Thursday, December 1, 2022

Language Of Confusion: Nau-

Nau is the root of nausea that I mentioned a few weeks ago. I decided to look at it since it has some interesting offshoots, and am too lazy to come up with something else. You know, the usual.
Nau- is the Proto Indo European root word for boat, so it’s no surprise it’s where nautical comes from. It showed up in the mid sixteenth century, coming from the French nautique, from the classical Latin nauticus, which means sailor and anything relating to sailors. That’s from the Greek nautikos, naval, from naus, ship, which is from nau-.
The naut part shows up in a lot of places. First there’s nautilus—a sea snail—which showed up in the seventeenth century and is taken directly from the Latin nautilus, and means the same thing, and is from the same Greek words as nautical. Then there’s astronaut, which showed up in 1929 in sci-fi books (though in 1888, an English writer named Percy Greg used Astronaut as the name of a spaceship) and was then picked up by the US space program in 1961. The -naut was taken straight from the Greek nautes, sailor, and from there, nau-.
Next is navigate, which makes sense when you think about it. It showed up in the late sixteenth century from the classical Latin navigatus and its verb form navigare, to sail. For most of its existence, it referred to sailing, then in 1784 it also referred to balloons (XD) and then in 1901 aircraft.
Navy is one of the oldest words we’re looking at, having showed up in the mid fourteenth century from the Old French navie. It’s from the classical Latin navigia, which literally means boats and is from navis, ship, and nau-. It’s no surprise that naval is related (though navel like a bellybutton absolutely is not), but what is kind of a surprise is that nave—like part of a church—is also. Nave showed up in the late seventeenth century from the Medieval Latin navem, which means a church nave, and is somehow from navis, apparently because some people kind of thought a nave looks like a ship.
You probably wouldn’t think nacelle is related, but it makes sense when you hear the history. It showed up in the late fifteenth century from the Vulgar Latin naucella, from the Late Latin navicella, which is from navis and means little ship. And that is what nacelle originally meant in English, it was just quickly abandoned, then in 1901 people started using it to mean the “gondola of an airship”, and in 1914 it was the “cockpit of an aircraft”, and then any structure/housing on a ship. Unlike some obsolete words, this one lives on!
Online Etymology Dictionary
Google Translate
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
Dictionary of Medieval Latin
Encyclopaedia Britannica
Orbis Latinus


  1. I think nacelle also migrated into the Star Trek universe.

  2. It doesn't surprise me that astronaut came from fiction. It seems like when science fact catches up with science fiction, it's easier to borrow terms that some writer already spent the time to plan out and create.

  3. They all relate - it's a Christmas miracle.

  4. Navy - boat - ship connection, no surprise!


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