Sunday, September 17, 2006

An rose by any other name...but not an astronaut

OK, something trivial is pissing me off. I know that what with Darfur and our nation's constitutional crisis and Iraq and global climate change, this is pretty small potatoes. But I've been in extensive discussion with Grishnash and Mad Latinist on this, and thought I'd share my outrage with the world.

Why do we have all these different words for "someone who goes into space"? Astronaut, cosmonaut, spationaut, taikonaut, and now the Malaysian "angkasawan" (and yes, they use that term on their English website). It's a ridiculous Orwellian relic of the Cold War, and needs to be reformed. I can understand why each language might want its own word for something (though I think the French are fighting a losing battle). That's not the problem. What annoys me the fact that we call people of a certain profession from one country one name ("astronaut") while we call people with the exact same profession from another country another name ("cosmonaut"). And other countries do the same thing. There's no reason for this, other than to emphasize the nationality of the person to score political points. Space brings out the mindless flag-waver in everyone, I guess.

We don't do this with any other profession I can think of. Even at the hight of the Cold War, Soviet generals were still "generals"; Soviet scientists were "scientists" even if they were commies through and through. (Mad Latinist did point out the Premier/Prime Minister distinction, but I think that's another example of using language to fabricate a sense national difference.)

The astronaut/cosmonaut/etc. distinction is even more meaningless today when a German might fly to the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz, then fly back on the American Space Shuttle. Is she a cosmonaut on the way up, and an astronaut on the way down? Does it matter if she was an East German before the Wall came down and trained with the old Soviet program, or a West German and trained with NASA? What if she's trained with both?

In protest of the jingosit liguistic hackery, I'm going to call all such people "space workers" until the terms are sorted out more to my satisfaction. "Space worker" is a lot more accurate than "star sailor" (astro=star, naut=sailor) anyway. And it removes that halo of science fiction romance from their job description.


Anonymous Mad Latinist said...

It was Grishnash who first brought up the premier/prime minister distinction. I mearly added that Canada uses that term as well, despite their Anglophone majority and pro-American leanings.

You know of course that I always gripe about how swords form different nations are called in English by that nation's word for "sword." But a more egregious, and germaine example of this would be the way subnational administrative divisions are called by their native names: province, département, oblast, not to mention iller and länder...

12:22 PM, September 18, 2006  

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