The Creative Exploration of Language


Cosmos doesn’t really mean what you think it means.  Or, put differently, its full meaning is hidden beneath the surface, like an iceberg, with only the topmost point visible.

The general understanding of cosmos is akin to “universe” or, perhaps, “the totality of all things in the universe.”  While this interpretation is not wrong as far as it goes, it refers only to the outward manifestation of cosmos, i.e., the simple fact of existence.  The deeper meaning of cosmos is only apparent when you look up the origin of the word and discover that it came to English from Greek, where it had the connotation of “order,” of something that is arranged, or even an “adornment.”  This explains why cosmos is at the root of cosmetics.

So, it seems clear that the original meaning of cosmos was not simply a collection of things in space, but an ordered system that had a fundamental logic underpinning it, an arrangement that resulted in beauty.  This understanding helps explain the Early Modern belief in a harmonious, Cartesian, mechanical universe in which everything that exists moves together, in an intricate and continuous manner, like a clock.

But cosmos predates the Early Modern period and it is tempting to think of the ancient world and our distant ancestors observing the inexorable march of the seasons, of the cycles of the moon and the beautiful arrangement of the stars in the sky and describing it with a word that meant both “order” and “adornment.”


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