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If you ask a dozen people at random about this word, it’s a safe bet that most replies will feature a pointy-eared alien. Spock’s native planet is newsworthy this week, not because of the forthcoming second movie outing of the revitalised Star Trek series but because the Oxford English Dictionary has added that sense of Vulcan to its online site.

Why Gene Roddenberry should have chosen this name seems to have been lost in the fug of the writing room. Would he really have borrowed the name of the Roman deity of fire and metalworking? It’s certainly possible, because he named another planet in the Star Trek universe Romulus and a minor planet in the same star system Remus, after the legendary founders of Rome, the twin sons of the god Mars.

It’s as likely that Roddenberry knew about the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier who, in 1860, came up with an ingenious solution to a baffling celestial problem. The planet Mercury didn’t move in its orbit exactly according to the rules of Newtonian mechanics — the difference was very slight but enough to need explaining. Le Verrier postulated a planet between Mercury and the sun, in part because it was thought one had been observed the year before. He called it Vulcan, because being forever close to the sun it must be as hot as the god’s forge. His idea failed to be accepted, mainly because nobody was able afterwards to find the planet; Einstein finally disposed of it in 1916 by calculating that his theory of relativity accounted for Mercury’s anomalous orbit. But it may be that Roddenberry borrowed its name, since Spock’s Vulcan is much hotter than Earth, though not quite as hot as Le Verrier’s would have been.

Vulcan has had other meanings. It has been employed as an obvious figurative reference for a blacksmith. A person who was lame might also have been given his name because Vulcan’s mother, Juno, hated his ugly red face when he was born and threw him out of Olympus, breaking his leg. A cuckold, in particular one who was a blacksmith, might once have been metaphorically Vulcanic, because legend says that Vulcan’s wife, Venus, had an affair with Mars. His enduring legacy, however, is volcano for a burning mountain, which came through French, Spanish and Italian writing of the sixteenth century about Mount Etna, underneath which Vulcan was supposed to have had his forge.

There is a third possibility, suggested by reader Charles Norman: The Outer Limits, a short-lived SF series on American television, featured an episode Cold Hands, Warm Heart, which starred William Shatner as an American astronaut participating in a Project Vulcan. Gene Roddenberry was often on the set, and hired several staffers from the earlier series when he began the Star Trek project.

We shouldn’t criticise the OED for being a mite slow in recognising the SF sense of Vulcan. It’s actually been responsive to the vocabulary of the Star Trek universe — it already has entries for Klingon, mind meld, phaser, prime directive, beam me up, Scotty, Trekkie and warp factor as well as including Vulcan nerve pinch in its new entry. It’s good to see the grand old lady of lexicography showing her populist side.

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Page created 13 Apr 2013