Thursday, 17 July 2014

What's in a name?

British astronaut Tim Peake has named his mission to the International Space Station (ISS) next year after a book by Sir Isaac Newton.

But the name Principia - which refers to Newton's book of mathematical principles Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica - could turn out to be a pronunciation nightmare.

More than 4,000 people came up with possible names for the mission earlier this year and Principia was suggested 20 times.

When the winning name was revealed yesterday by those who had made the suggestion the ‘ci’ was pronounced with a ‘k’ sound (PrinKipia), in-line with the classical pronunciation of Latin.

Newton himself, an adept Latinist, would probably have pronounced it the same way but modern studies of Newton generally refer to the work as 'PrinSipia'.

Adhering to strict Latin pronunciation standards of old for a 21st century space mission might seem a little irrelevant today - so which way do we go?

Like et cetera, the title of Newton's work has been pretty much absorbed into English and the ‘s’ version flows more naturally in the context of other English words and modern usage.

Principa set out the laws of motion and gravity more than 300 years ago and Major Peake chose the name in honour of its author Sir Isaac Newton, Britain's greatest scientist.

Photo: Clive Simpson

Tim will be launched from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in December 2015 and he will spend six months in orbit carrying out scientific and medical experiments.

One of his aims is to inspire children during his stay in space, in particular by promoting healthy eating.

"I am delighted with this name that honours one of Britain’s most famous scientists," Tim said.

"Our planet Earth is a precious and beautiful place and we all need to safeguard it. I hope it will also encourage people to observe the world as if for the first time - just as Isaac Newton did."

Each time an ESA European astronaut prepares to go into orbit it is customary for the public to help choose a mission name.

Names that reflect an astronaut's nationality are encouraged - but they should also have a wider European flavour and be easy to pronounce.

Previous mission names have included Marco Polo (Roberto Vittori, Italy), Delta (Andre Kuipers (the Netherlands), Celsius (Christer Fuglesang, Sweden), Cervantes (Pedro Duque, France), Esperia (Paulo Nespoli, Italy) and Blue Dot (Alexander Gerst, Germany).

Viewers of the BBC children's programme Blue Peter will be invited to design the mission patch for the Principia mission in a competition to be launched in September.

The pronunciation conundrum is, perhaps, a little unfortunate for what is designed to be a popular mission bringing space to a new audience in the UK.

Time will tell exactly how the name of Britain’s most exciting space mission to date will be pronounced - and whether modern usage or tradition will win the day.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information


  1. Latin pronunciation - would like tradition to win the day!

  2. Guess tradition would be good - but I'm just happy we have a great British astronaut at last!