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.