Morning name: penumbra

Today’s name that just popped into my head, for no reason I could think of. From NOAD2:

penumbra  the partially shaded outer region of the shadow cast by an opaque object. [also figurative uses] ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: modern Latin, from Latin paene ‘almost’ + umbra ‘shadow’ [OED3 (Sept. 2005): Johannes Kepler Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena (1604)]

I think it’s wonderful that this was devised by Kepler as a technical term in astronomy. As a technical term in English it comes paired with umbra:

the fully shaded inner region of a shadow cast by an opaque object, especially the area on the earth or moon experiencing the total phase of an eclipse. (NOAD2)

A diagram illustrating both terms, without the complexities of eclipses:


Two parts to the word penumbra, pen(e)- and umbra, each putting the word into relationships with a cluster of other words in English.

pen-. Although penises (both real and symbolic) are a recurrent theme on this block (for reasons that have to do with my sex and sexuality), the element pen– in penumbra has nothing to do with male bodyparts. As noted above, it’s from Latin paene ‘almost’ (the penumbra is almost, but not quite, the umbra), while penis is Latin for ‘tail, penis’ (an old metaphor). (Pencil is historically related to penis (via the sense ‘paintbrush’, also in penicillin), but pen (from penna ‘feather’) is not.)

English has a small cluster of pen- words, treated in some detail on Michael Quinion’s Affixes site, which I quoted in my 5/1/13 posting “penultimate”: one ordinary word (peninsula, almost an island), two technical terms of some currency (penumbra and penultimate, almost the last in a series of things), and two rare terms from geology with the variant pene– (peneplain and penecontemporaneous).

umbra. In contrast, English has a rich assortment of words going back to Latin umbra ‘shadow’, beyond the technical term umbra.

I’ll start with umbrage. From NOAD2:

1 offense or annoyance: she took umbrage at his remarks.
2 archaic shade or shadow, especially as cast by trees.
ORIGIN late Middle English (sense 2): from Old French, from Latin umbra ‘shadow.’ An early sense was ‘shadowy outline,’ giving rise to ‘ground for suspicion,’ whence the current notion of ‘offense’

On to umbrella. From NOAD2:

a device consisting of a circular canopy of cloth on a folding metal frame supported by a central rod, used as protection against rain or sometimes sun. [also figurative uses] ORIGIN early 17th cent.: from Italian ombrella, diminutive of ombra ‘shade,’ from Latin umbra

A rainbow umbrella:


And umbel. From NOAD2:

a flower cluster in which stalks of nearly equal length spring from a common center and form a flat or curved surface, characteristic of the parsley family [the Umbelliferae (old style) or Apiaceae (new style)]. ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from obsolete French umbelle or Latin umbella ‘sunshade,’ diminutive of umbra

The umbel of Daucus carota, the carrot:


And umber. From NOAD2:

a natural pigment resembling but darker than ocher, normally dark yellowish-brown in color (raw umber) or dark brown when roasted (burnt umber). ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from French (terre d’)ombre or Italian (terra di) ombra, literally ‘(earth of) shadow,’ from Latin umbra ‘shadow’ or Umbra (feminine) ‘Umbrian’ [Umbria is named for the Umbri people, an Italic group absorbed by the expansion of the Romans].

This etymology would be entirely straightforward except for the introduction of Umbria (a name that has nothing to do with shade or shadows) into matters, a suggestion that NOAD2 gets from OED2.

But wait! There’s more! Here’s a surprise. Again from NOAD2, on somber:

dark or dull in color or tone; gloomy: the night skies were somber and starless. ORIGIN mid 18th cent.: from French, based on Latin sub ‘under’ + umbra ‘shade’

That came through French. But from the same source, now via Spanish: sombrero. Again from NOAD2:

a broad-brimmed felt or straw hat, typically worn in Mexico and the southwestern US. ORIGIN Spanish, from sombra ‘shade’.

Sombreros provide shade for the face. They are also part of a collection of visual stereotypes for Mexicans. Here’s the logo for Taco Sombrero, providing Mexican fast food in Gulfport MS — with the sombrero, the taco, the bushy mustache, the serape, and the sandals.


3 Responses to “Morning name: penumbra”

  1. Hilmer Says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the legal sense of penumbra, most famously used by Justice Douglas in Griswold v. Connecticut, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year:

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Instead of saying “I’m surprised you didn’t…” — which is a covert accusation of some kind of incompetence on my part — it would have been more helpful to simply say something like “There’s also a legal sense…”. In fact, if you look at what I wrote, you’ll see that I said there were also figurative senses (which I chose not to enumerate); this legal usage is one of those.

  2. Hilmer Says:

    Oops! I didn’t mean it at all as an accusation. It popped out as part of a conversation with you in my head, which of course you can’t be blamed for not being a real party to.

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