In astronomy we have the Aurora Australis in the south and the Aurora Borealis in the north. According to Wikipedia, auster is in fact the Latin equivalent of the Greek νότος, or southern wind. However, boreas is a Greek word, βορέας, not Latin! The Latin equivalent is aquilo. So, are the "southern lights" derived from a Latin word whereas the "northern lights" are derived from a Greek word? I can think of other places where auster/boreas are used as south/north. I find it unusual that this common pair would be derived from two different languages. How did this convention arise?

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    This is a basic etymological question, not really appropriate for this site. Nov 30, 2011 at 16:41
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    To say "boreas is a Greek word...not Latin! The Latin equivalent is aquilo" is an oversimplification. A language can have more than one name for something. E.g. alternatives to Aquilo were Aquilon and Septentrio. Indeed there was a Latin word borealis meaning 'northern.'
    – LarsH
    Dec 1, 2011 at 20:43
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    A why question on etymology isn't really answerable. It just happened so. Aug 20, 2015 at 9:47
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    @jknappen: Although I disagree with the assertion of your comment, I do want to say thank you for posting it. There is nothing more frustrating than having someone express displeasure with a question or answer but not give a reason.
    – dotancohen
    Aug 20, 2015 at 10:52
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    As the old Classics master said: "Television - it's a mix of Latin and Greek roots. Mark my words: nothing good will come of it." Nov 20, 2018 at 9:07

3 Answers 3


The term "aurora borealis" was arguably first used by a French scientist Petrus Gassendus aka Pierre Gassendi in 1621, in his treatise "Physics." For further discussion, see Siscoe, George. 1986. An historical footnote on the origin of 'Aurora Borealis.' In History of geophysics, volume 2

The phenomenon itself has been known for a long time in Europe; for example, the ancient Greeks called it "blazing skies" or "flaming sky dragons" (Hesiod, Theogony).

The term "aurora australis" was arguably first used in 1741 (OED)

Notice that when those terms were coined, they were used as Latin words. In other words, the Latin word "borealis" was used, not the name of a Greek god.

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    I think the key here is that many words come from Greek via Latin. So when you ask "Is this word from Greek or Latin?" the answer is "both." For example, octopus. Probably the same for borealis. A Greek root can be borrowed directly into English in one case, and (the same root) borrowed via Latin in another case.
    – LarsH
    Dec 1, 2011 at 20:33
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    I agree that octopus was borrowed into English via Latin; that's what I was trying to say, but may have been too terse. I'm surprised you say the plural is usually octopi. But let's not get off on that rabbit trail! english.stackexchange.com/questions/270/…
    – LarsH
    Dec 1, 2011 at 21:24
  • Your note of first usage is wrong according to nasa.gov/mission_pages/themis/auroras/aurora_history.html
    – prash
    Aug 21, 2015 at 10:00
  • @prash Please note the word "arguably" in my post above. And I'm willing to change my answer if you provide me with the exact quotation from Galilei.
    – Alex B.
    Aug 21, 2015 at 14:38
  • Does this help? It's from a later edition by Eugenio Alberi, who published Galileo's works in 1844.
    – prash
    Aug 21, 2015 at 17:18

They are both Latin, Aurora Borealis means "morning light coming from the north" and Aurora Australis means "morning light coming from the south". .


Common sense guess: The northern lights have been known in the west for a much longer time than the southern lights. Maybe the ancient greeks themselves knew of it and named it. The southern lights were discovered (by the west), and thus named, much later, by people who had neither greek nor latin as their first language. Maybe they didn't see a problem in mixing greek and latin terms.

Notice how many of the older scientific terms for animals and plants are a mishmash of greek and latin (now they are a mishmash of just about anything). If following that tradition, a mix of greek and latin to describe another natural phenomenon is perfectly understandable.

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