SUBSCRIBE NOW
COLUMNS

The Secret Lives of Words: The Crab Nebula, cankers, and cranks

Rick Lafleur
More Content Now

This past month NASA released a dramatic new video, employing state-of-the-art visible light, X-ray, and infrared technology, of the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a star explosion first observed on July 4, 1054 A.D., and recorded by Chinese and Japanese astronomers, the Baghdadi physician Ibn Butlan, and possibly even Mayan astronomical texts (the Dresden codex). What scientists now call SN (Supernova) 1054, the violent cosmic blast had appeared suddenly in the constellation Taurus and was so extraordinarily luminous that it remained visible for nearly two years, for the first two weeks even during daylight hours.

The formation was viewed by a number of 18th-century British and French astronomers who, while unaware of its exact origin or nature, did label it a nebula. The Latin word meant "mist" or "fog" and in modern astronomy is applied to a variety of NEBULous interstellar clusters of dust, ionized gases, and other materials - including what in this case is a supernova remnant. 

Observing the vast cloud-like image through his 36-inch telescope in 1844, the Anglo-Irish astronomer William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse, sketched a drawing that depicted the formation as crab-shaped and gave it the name "Crab Nebula." When viewing the object through the 72-inch telescope he later designed (at the time the largest in the world), the shape no longer appeared crab-like to Parsons, but the name stuck.

The millennium-old supernova nebula isn’t, of course, the only "crab" in our night-time sky. The zodiac sign we call CANCER took its name from Latin cancer/cancri, a word that even among the ancient Romans referred, first, to the crab itself, then also to the constellation and to the dread disease. The related ancient Greek word karkinos (related to Sanskrit karka) shared those same meanings and is source of our word CARCINoma.

The vaguely crab-shaped "star-grouping" (which is the literal meaning of Latin con- + stella, as in STELLar) was named for the huge crab of Greek myth that attacked Heracles (Roman Hercules) as he was fighting the many-headed hydra and was then slain by the hero. Hera (the Roman Juno), who despised Heracles as the offspring of her philandering husband Zeus and a mortal woman, transformed the crab and set it to shine forever in the heavens.

Without quite telling us why, the fifth–century B.C. Greek physician Hippocrates (who gave us the Hippocratic Oath) and others after him, including the medical writer Galen 600 years later, called cancerous tumors karkinoi. They had in mind, it has been speculated, how hard some tumors are, like the crab’s carapace, or how their vein-like structure sometimes resembles the creature’s spreading claws, or even how painful and tenacious the disease can be. From the same imaginative linguistic tradition come the similarly unpleasant CANKER sore and "CANCER sticks," a term for cigarettes that originated in the late 1950s.

If you’ve ever been bitten by a crab, you know how much it hurts and how those clingy claws will just not let go. No wonder then that English has come up with words like "crabbed" and "crabby" for someone with a cranky, ill-tempered disposition. And how unfortunate for the poor maligned crustacean that pubic lice, those blood-sucking insects whose remains have been discovered even in 2,000-year-old mummies, are cringingly called "the crabs"!

And let’s not entirely forget that eminently forgettable 1957 flick, "Attack of the Crab Monsters" - independently produced by Roger Corman on a budget of $70,000 before he made his name with "Little Shop of Horrors" (one of Jack Nicholson’s first films) and a series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. As bad as "Crab Monsters" was, with its nuclear radiation-mutated, brain-devouring giant decapods, it grossed at least a million dollars, pulling countless teenage sci-fi fans, yours truly among them, into what ads called its "tidal wave of horror."

Exploded stars, biting lice, dread diseases, grumpy old men, and C-movies aside, there’s much about crabs to delight in. Though not as prized as oysters or lobsters by ancient gourmets, crabs (as well as clams, shrimp, and even crayfish) were eaten and enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, who harvested them from rivers and seas. Legionnaires dined on them during Rome’s occupation of Britain.

Aristotle cataloged edible varieties and commented on the odd behavior of hermit crabs; Pliny discussed medicinal uses as cures for venomous bites, ulcers, and hair loss. In his comedy "The Wasps," Aristophanes has the sons of an admiral named "Carcinus (Crab)" dancing with the chorus in crab costumes. Researchers from the University of Rome have recently studied a fresh-water crab species (Potamon fluviatile) that has survived and evolved for thousands of years in the Cloaca Maxima, the stream flowing into the Tiber beneath the Forum. Though the Cloaca long served to drain the city’s waste water (the Latin word cloaca means "sewer"), an University of Georgia friend of mine who knows Rome well reports that the crabs harvested there are deemed especially tasty!

One of the "salt life’s" simplest joys, for kids and us grown-ups too, is watching on a moonlit night those tiny stalk-eyed critters skittering crab-wise along the beach, popping craftily into and out of their sandy caves. I’ll try not to think about that, though, with National Crabmeat Day coming up March 9 and visions of crab-cakes dancing in my head.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.