I never knew that

Jun 11th, 2011 | By | Category: Personal Columns

The habit of reading labels goes back to the boredom of childhood days when the Corn Flakes packet provided a moment of respite from the fact that another day for going to school had dawned: reading was always an escape from stuff that was annoying or hurtful.

Three years of theological training in the mid-80s added to a very limited personal skills set the ability to read words in Greek, though not to have much understanding of their meaning (it was once a useful skill in discerning the destination of buses during a holiday in Crete).

The Europeanisation of everything has meant household products now come labelled in diverse languages, languages which frequently include Greek.  Standing in the shower, the Palmolive shower cream has a label stuck in it declaring that it comes with  ‘moisturising milk’.  The Greek reads ‘γαλακτωμα’.  ‘Galactoma’, I thought, ‘that explains it.  That’s why the band of stars across a dark summer’s sky is called the Milky Way, galaxy is milky’.

The Blackberry is not waterproof, so out of the shower, I Googled ‘galaxy’.  γαλαξίας, it said, a reference to ‘milky’. Palmolive shower cream has properties common to distant stars; probably not a great selling point on the supermarket shelves, but the sort of thing to prompt a Michael Caine-like, ‘Not a lot of people know that’.

Why didn’t they teach that sort of thing at school?  We were told the names of the planets, though never learned them in a way that might be remembered, and we were told there were galaxies beyond, but no-one ever said that the galaxies had been so called because of there perceived milkiness.  Maybe it didn’t matter, we were never told the classical stories behind the names of the constellations; they were just there, mostly to be ignored.  It’s just seems odd now that we might learn about the Sumerians, and read Charles Kingsley, and lots of other things that were remote from our lives, but were never told much about the things that we could have seen every day.

Perhaps there is a whole galaxy of knowledge that simply passed us by (except ‘galaxy’ doesn’t seem the right word; a milkiness of knowledge sounds strange).  That’s the problem with the unknown; not being known, you don’t know how much of it there is. Perhaps it is not important whether we understand sources and origins and connections.  To know that galaxies and milk are linked hardly makes much difference to daily reality, but there is always the possibility that somewhere out there there are almost forgotten connections that one day might prove vital.

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  1. You were getting a bit Donald “known unknowns” Rumsfeld there at the end. (Which is fine, because I always thought he was being perfectly comprehensible at that point.)
    But why not learn those memorable aspects of a subject at school – the points that’ll make something stick in your mind – and add a sense of wonder? Well… not all teachers feel the joy, I suppose.
    I love the clues one gets from having some idea of other languages – especially when it comes to the name of a place – meaningless if you know only English – plainly descriptive if you know the derivation.

  2. I thought what Rumsfeld said made sense.

    I only have a smattering of Greek. I think the world would be altogether more interesting if we had learned Latin!

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