The Greeks had a word for it…
The Greek god of the sky was Ouranos. The Romans later called him Uranus. In the eighteenth century, and astronomer named a new planet after this mighty deity…and a chemist, in turn, named a newly discovered metal after the planet. He called it uranium.
As author Isaac Asimov points out, “the oldest of the Greek gods still lives in a word connected with the newest and most dreadful of scientific weapons.”
So live countless gods, demigods, legindary mortals, old fears and old desires in our everyday language. In Words from the Myths, Isaac Asimov retells the ancient stories—from Chaos to the siege of Troy—and describes their influence on modern languge…and modern life.
This is among my favorites of Asimov’s books, and also among the first that I read. I’m not sure when that was, but it was probably fourth or fifth grade, because I can remember doing a report in sixth grade on the travels of Odysseus and relying heavily on Words From the Myths as a source.
The book combines some of Asimov’s best features: as a story-teller and as an explainer. Granted, he is not attempting to describe much of a particular story—few of the tales he relates last longer than a page or two—but the book does have that narrative aspect, and, as such, provides a highly abbreviated summary of some of the key Greek myths.
This is topped off by a heavy helping of etymologies, however, and it is the etymologies which probably do the most to make the book fun. The fact of the matter is that the stories of the Greek myths are pervasive in our language in a fashion that we moderns—with our rare attention to Latin and Greek and scant understanding of Greek myths beyond what we’ve seen in “Jason and the Argonauts” and other Hollywood interpretations—do not often appreciate. Asimov here provides a fascinating glimpse into this pervasiveness.
Definitely, then, this is one of Asimov’s stronger non-fiction books and, given its relatively narrative format, the best of the “word” books of the 1960’s.