“Terra” and Its Relations

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This post lists and defines words derived from the Latin noun terra, meaning “earth” or “land.”

Terra is used in several contexts in English but never on its own as a common noun. It is the name of an early Roman goddess associated with Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and maternity, and identified with the Greek goddess Gaia. It is also the Latin name for Earth and is widely used as such in science fiction; the adjective in usage associated with the proper noun is Terran. (The notion of populating another planet with Earth’s flora and fauna to facilitate colonization is called terraforming.) In addition, it refers to landmasses on planets and satellites, in combination with other classical names (such as Aphrodite Terra on Venus and Terra Cimmeria on Mars). In this context, the Latin plural terrae is employed to refer to more than one such feature.

“Terra firma” originally referred to outlying areas of the Republic of Venice as opposed to the city itself, which was built on a lagoon; now, it means “solid ground” and is used figuratively as well as literally to refer to having a steady, substantial footing. Terra-cotta, meanwhile, means “cooked earth” and is the name of a type of clay used for statuary, vases, and architecture, as well as the word for products made of the clay; it also refers to the brownish orange typical of the finished product.

The word is also associated with landmasses on Earth, as in the well-known phrase “terra incognita” (literally, “unknown land”), which refers to hypothetical places, and the more obscure “terra nullius” (essentially equivalent to “no man’s land”). Because these Latin phrases, at least, have been adopted into English, they need not be italicized.

Other words stemming from terra include terrain, which originally described equestrian training grounds but now pertains to a piece of land in general or the physical features of such. (That word is part of the phrase “all-terrain vehicle,” usually referred to by its initials, ATV.) It can be employed figuratively just as area is—for example, when describing a skill or topic one is unfamiliar with as “new terrain.”

Terrace, which referred in its Old French form to a platform built on a mound of earth, now describes a flat area, used for leisure, next to a building or to an artificially level section of a hillside where crops are grown, as well as a row of houses or a residential street, originally one located on a slope. It may also refer to any flat natural or constructed area. Terrace is also a verb describing formation of either general type of terrace.

Terrestrial is an adjective describing something pertaining to Earth or to land as opposed to water, air, or space; it also refers to the dense inner planets of the solar system as distinct from the large, gaseous outer planets. Extraterrestrial, originally an adjective alluding to something originating elsewhere than on Earth, is often employed to denote a being from another planet, especially a sentient one that is part of an alien civilization.

Terrene is an obscure alternative to the adjective terrestrial; a related adjective, subterranean (literally, “underground”), is much more familiar.

Territory refers in general to an area of indeterminate size; more specifically, it may pertain to a geopolitical area under government jurisdiction but not classified as a province, state, or other national subdivision. The word may be used figuratively as a synonym for the nonliteral use of terrain. (The idioms “come(s) with the territory” and “go(es) with the territory” refer to something being an inevitable aspect of a situation.) The adjectival form is territorial; both the noun and the adjective may refer to animal behavior related to protection of habitat.

A terrarium is a small indoor enclosure, usually made of clear glass or plastic, for observing animals and/or plants in a microcosm of their natural environment; the word is constructed on the model of aquarium. On a related note, the obscure adjective terraqueous means “consisting of both land and water.”

Another rare word stemming from terra is parterre, which describes an ornamental garden or the main floor of a theater. Better-known words that may not be easily recognized as being derived from terra include terrier, originally pertaining to a type of dog originally bred to pursue animals into burrows, and tureen, a word for a deep, covered bowl used for baking and/or serving soup or other foods or for a similar laboratory container.

Terrible and terror are unrelated words stemming from the Latin verb terrere, meaning “frighten,” and interrogate is from interrogare, consisting of the prefix inter- attached to the verb rogare, meaning “ask.”

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10 thoughts on ““Terra” and Its Relations”

  1. In all of the various forms of science fiction, the inhabitants of the Earth, and its future, hypothetical colonies, have been referred to by many names. These include Terrans, Humans, Earthlings, Earthers, Terrestrials, Gaians, the Earth-descended race, and according to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, “carbon-based bipeds”.
    So, as you can see, the words “Terran” and “Terrestrial” are also nouns as well as adjectives.

  2. This is an important “nonplace” in the history of the exploration of the Earth: “Terra Australis Incognita” !
    As the captains of sailing ships covered more and more of the world (especially the Western and Southern Hemispheres), it became more and more apparent that there was a great imbalance, with lot of land in the Northern Hemisphere and a lot of ocean in the Southern Hemisphere. Antarctica and Australia had not even been discovered, yet.
    On his first voyage to the Southern Hemisphere, the Dutch Captain Abel Tasman spotted and landed on the islands of New Zealand, Tasmania, and the Fiji Islands, but somehow he missed the whole mainland of Australia, circumnavigating it, and going north of New Guinea and south of Tasmania!
    Then on his second voyage of discovery, Tasman explored the northern coasts of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and possibly Queensland.

  3. For 200 years or more, people thought that there was “Terra Australis Incognita” somewhere in what we know as the South Pacific Ocean. There were even tales of the “Lost Continent of Mu”, inhabited by amazing people similar to the mythological Atlanteans “beyond the Pillars of Hercules”.
    In the long run, this was found out even after Antarctica, Australia, and New Zealand were found and charted: The Northern Hemisphere consists of about 40% land and 60% ocean (North Atlantic, Arctic, North Pacific, and North Indian). In contrast, the Southern Hemisphere is covered by about 20% land and 80% ocean! (South Atlantic, South Pacific, South Indian, and the ocean around Antarctica.) It seemed like there was plenty of area there for a “Terra Australis Incognito”, or Lost Continent of Mu!
    Anyway, averaging things out over the whole world, we have a little bit more than 30% land and a little bit less than 70% ocean. One-third land and two-thirds ocean is a good approximation.

  4. Some people say that our planet ought to be called “Ocean” instead of “Earth” because we have lots more ocean than we have earth!

  5. According to the International Astronometrical Union, there is a rule for naming the “landmarks” of Venus, with a solitary, salient exception. All of the features of Venus are supposed to be named for females, since Venus was named was named for a goddess.
    The exception is the one gigantic mountainous area on Venus. It was discovered using radar back in the 1970s, using the huge radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Those mountains are called the “Maxwell Montes”. These were named for the Scottish mathematical physicist James Clerk Maxwell. During the 1860s and 1870s, Maxwell worked out the equations of electromagnetism, and those equations predicted the existence of radio waves – something that nobody else had ever thought about before. Radio waves were finally discovered in the laboratory in the 1890s by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz. (The radio unit of the hertz is named for him.)

  6. In science fiction, there have been various names used for hypothetical, or future, intelligent beings on the Moon: Lunarians, Selenites, Selenians, Lunans, Loonies (Robert A. Heinlein did this), Moonmen, Moonwomen.
    In a weekly comic strip of the 1960s (“Dick Tracy”), there were Selenians living in a remote canyon on the Moon (with an atmosphere in it ). One of them decided to return to the Earth with the explorers, and we called her the “Moon Maid”. A really sexy chick, too, she was, always wearing hot pants and thigh-high boots! And like all Selenians, she had long white hair.

  7. The Moonies are/were all Loonies!

    The Selenians of “Dick Tracy” all had a pair of antennae on their heads, too, just like the “Andorrans” of STAR TREK, which came along a little bit later on.

  8. The German word that corresponds to “territory” and several other English words (including “state”) is a loose cognate with a prominent English word: “Land”, with the plural “Länder”.
    The Länder of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland include such familiar places as Bavaria, Brandenburg, Hesse, Rhineland, Saxony, and Westphalia. (All of them are informally referred to as “Bundesländer”, and in the Federal Republic of Austria, this is the official name of its various states.)
    There are now more than one Saxonys in Germany:
    Lower Saxony, capital Hannover, formerly in West Germany,
    Saxony, capital Dresden, a new Land formed out of East Germany, and Saxony-Anhalt, capital Magdeburg, and also a new Land formed out of East Germany.
    A lot of reorganization was necessary because in 1947, the old “Prussia” was firmly and permanently abolished. Also, a lot of Prussia was given to Poland, since the eastern part of Poland had been “munched down by” Josef Stalin of the USSR, and Stalin also seized the northern half of East Prussia (where the seaport of Konigsberg had been located. Now Kaliningrad.)

  9. So, the situation concerning Saxony in the Federal Republic of Germany is rather like that of the U.S.A. having a Virginia, a West Virginia, and an East Virginia – which has never happened.
    West Virginia is where it is, and East Virginia would be centered around Norfolk, Hampton Roads, Petersburg, and Richmond.
    Virginia would be all that is left over in between, and maybe its capital city would be Lynchburg or Roanoke. Oh, well, it will never happen here, but it has happened in Germany.
    Also, in South Africa, the “Cape Province” was divided into three pieces in 1994: North Cape, East Cape, and South Cape.
    (West Cape Province would be on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean!) South Cape has Cape Town, and East Cape has East London, and North Cape is rather like Alaska or Montana in having a lot of wilderness.

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