Matt’s Astronomy Question of the Day: Why is Earth called Earth?

I know this one falls within the category of ‘Questions Asked By A Five-Year-Old’, but I don’t know the answer. I mean, Earth has always been called Earth, right? We take it for granted. Never mind that all the other local planets have dramatic names, names of gods, while our own is named after dirt. Earth is Earth.

I guess you can see why the henchman of Ming the Merciless pronounced it with such disgust.

Sure, our planet has other names, cooler names – Terra, Gaia – but they’re not common currency. ‘Earth’ endures.

The Internet doesn’t seem to know the answer, although I admit my searches haven’t been exhaustive. I’m told where the word comes from – the Old English for ‘ground’ or ‘dirt’ – but that doesn’t explain how it got tagged to our planet as a whole. Sites like Yahoo Answers blithely trot this out as an explanation, but with no real details – was Earth first named in a book? A scroll? On a wall somewhere?

I can take a good guess as to the whys – earth is symbolic of life, growth, harvest, Adam created from the dirt, from dust we come and to dust we return. Earth is less a name, more a primal description, one that we lose sight of in our ongoing divorce from the land. But that’s still not the full story – why Earth and not ‘Water’ or ‘Forest’? My gut answer is because Earth sounds better, but is that just because we’re so used to it? And what was the planet called by people for whom the earth is hostile – those in deserts or arctic wastelands?

On a similar note, ‘the earth’ is used biblically to distinguish this sphere of creation from heaven and hell. If this at the root of it then it implies Earth was named by someone from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is probably true given how the West seems to dominate this sort of thing, but that’s still not a definitive answer.

Maybe it’s a similar thing to the Moon, an act of possession – it’s not the only moon but heck, it’s our Moon. But by that logic the Earth should be called the Planet. And it’s not, it’s called Earth and I don’t know why!

Answers in the comments please. Go on. Put me out of my misery…

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