• empyrean •
Pronunciation: em-pi-ree-ên • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective, noun
Meaning: 1. (Noun) The highest reaches of the firmament, the heavens, the abode of gods and angels, originally thought to be a dome. 2. Of or related to the empyrean. 3. Inspiring awe, wonder.
Notes: Today's word has a fraternal twin, empyreal, with the same meaning but a different appearance. We are dealing with very old words here, so meanings have gone astray. The only relative of today's word is empyreum, which refers to the smell of burnt organic substances. (For the historical connection, see Word History.)
In Play: The suffixes on empyreal and empyrean make it clear that they are first and foremost adjectives: "Sue Persillias was married amidst the empyrean splendor of a 19th century royal inauguration." However, both words also serve as nouns: "Lying on his back and looking up at the starry empyreal brought all of Fowler Fairweather's problems into better perspective."
Word History: Today's Good Word comes from Greek empyros "fiery", which itself comes from en "in" + pyr "fire". In days gone by, this word referred to the highest part of the supposedly spherical heavens, thought to contain the pure element of fire. The early Greek scientists believed that the universe was composed of earth, air, fire, and water. In Greek cosmology, the highest heaven was the sphere of fire and purity, and was only later populated with God and the angels by early Christians. It's the Greek word we see in pyre and pyromaniac, as well as today's word. Since Proto-Indo-European [p] became [f] in all Germanic languages, we are not surprised to see Feuer in German and fire in English from the same original PIE word that became pyr in Greek. (We can offer no empyreal expression of gratitude to C. John Graham for suggesting today's Good Word, but we do tip our hat to him.)