Sciency Words: The Milky Way

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:


A while back, there was a very famous marketing campaign, coupled with a very famous slogan.  Some of you may remember it.  The purpose of this marketing campaign was, obviously, to encourage tourists to visit our galaxy.

According to ancient Greek mythology, the Milky Way was created as a result of a breastfeeding accident.  You see, the demigod Heracles was absurdly strong, even as a baby.  One day, the goddess Hera was breastfeeding baby Heracles.  Because Heracles was so strong, he started suckling too hard, and Hera had to pull him off her breast.  As a result, Heracles spat up all the milk he’d been drinking.  And, once again because Heracles was so absurdly strong, he ended up spewing milk all the way up into the sky.

Thus, the Greeks called all that “milk” in the sky Galaxias Kyklos, or “the Milky Circle.”  The “Way” part came later, thanks to the Romans, who looked at that same wide band of light cutting across the nighttime sky and thought it looked kind of like a road.  Thus, the Romans named it Via Lactea, which can be translated as “Road of Milk” or “Way of Milk.”  Or “Milky Way.”

So that’s how our galaxy came to be known officially as the Milky Way.  Except… is that really the official name?  I tried really hard, but I couldn’t find any statement or document from the International Astronomy Union (I.A.U.) concerning the official name of our galaxy.  The official names of other galaxies?  Sure, there are rules for that.  But our own galaxy?  Nothing.

I suspect the I.A.U.’s stance on this is similar to their stance on the official names for the Earth and the Moon, or the Sun and the Solar System: just keep using whatever names you already use in your native language.

According to Wikipedia, our galaxy is known as the Silver River (China), the Heavenly River (Japan), and the Ganges of the Sky (India).  In large portions of Africa and Central Asia, our galaxy is called the Straw Way or the Straw Thief’s Way.  Several cultures in and around the Arctic Circle call it the Bird’s Path, because it is said that birds follow that pathway of stars during migratory seasons.

Personally, I don’t think the Milky Way looks much like milk.  It’s too shiny.  Too sparkly.  Thanks to light pollution, I’ve only seen the Milky Way a few times in my life.  The first time was while camping in the backwoods of Indiana.  I thought then, and I still think now, that the Milky Way looks like someone spilled diamonds across the sky.

So if I ever got the chance to rename our galaxy (and as a science fiction writer, perhaps I will have that chance at some point), I’d want to name it something diamond-y.  The Diamond Way, or the Diamond River, or something like that.

So what do you think?  Do you like the name Milky Way, or do you prefer a different name like Silver River or Bird’s Path?  Or would you rather make up your own name, if you had the chance?

P.S.: According to the Mars Wrigley’s website, the Milky Way candy bar was NOT named after the galaxy.  As a space nerd, I was deeply disappointed to learn this.  In the future, I will be spending my candy allowance elsewhere.

13 thoughts on “Sciency Words: The Milky Way

  1. Can’t say I have strong feelings about the name. The few times I’ve seen it, my impression was of a long cloud like thing. But it probably wasn’t sufficiently free of light pollution to get the impression you got.

    I think your reaction to the Milky Way bar is right and proper.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I could see it as a long, cloudy thing. That makes sense too. The first time I saw it, though, the foreground stars looked so much brighter than I’d ever imagined they could, and that’s the part that really stuck with me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very little of what we see in the sky actually resembles the name given – but let’s stick with Milky Way, even if it is still not rubber stamped by the IAU.

    By the way, my local observatory is located on a street called Milky Way. I don’t want to see it renamed Ganges Way!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is awesome! Absolutely no need to rename the street. I do think it’s interesting, though, to know that other cultures around the world have come up with other names for our galaxy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. For a long time, I didn’t think The Milky Way was the real name of our galaxy, it’s too simple! Even the latin name Via Lactea sounds way better than the English!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I kind of felt the same way. When other galaxies get named Andromeda or Triangulum, Milky Way just doesn’t seem to fit in. Then again, there’s a galaxy called the Cigar Galaxy, so I guess the Milky Way isn’t the only galaxy with a simplistic name.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I like the name Milky Way because it holds a lot of human history inside it.
    Whichever cultural name you use, you get some idea that for millennia, past humans were looking up and marvelling at the same wonder, trying to understand it as best they could with the knowledge they had. I get a good view of the Milky Way at home on clear nights and the history has always been a part of the wonder for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always loved the baby Heracles story. It’s a silly story, of course, but there’s still something charming about it. But it wasn’t until I started doing research for this post that I found out about all those other names. There’s so much more history than I ever realized!


    1. Light pollution is excess light from cities, street lights, etc that makes it harder to see the stars at night. So if you’re in the middle of a big city, you’ll only be able to see a handful of stars, if you can see any stars at all. But the farther you are from a major population center, the more stars will become visible. And if you want to see the Milky Way in its full glory, you’ll have to travel pretty far out into the countryside.

      If you’re interested, here’s an interactive map that shows you how much light pollution you’re getting in any given part of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

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