• firmament •
Pronunciation: fêrm-ê-mênt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: Today's Good Word sounds as though it should refer to terra firma, but it does in fact refer to just the opposite: the heavens, the sky.
Notes: Today's is another lexical curve ball, seemingly referring to something firm, like solid earth, but in fact referring to the ethereal heavens (see Word History). The critical point here is to be careful how we use this word. It has an adjective, firmamental, which opens the door for an adverb, firmamentally, though it would seem to be of little use in normal discourse.
In Play: Today's Good Word goes back to a time when we were unaware of outer space and thought the sky was a large vault surrounding a flat Earth. But the sky was still far over our heads, so we can still say things like: "If we could get Jason Rainbow's head out of the firmament and his feet back on terra firma, we could have a serious discussion." Because it originated in the Bible, though, this word is largely used in poetic and religious contexts: "I don't care what scientists say, I still believe that what we call 'stars' are angels flying about in the firmament."
Word History: Middle English took this word from Biblical translations that used Latin firmamentum "support" to refer to the sky, then thought to be a large dome or vault over head. This noun was derived from firmare "to strengthen, support, confirm", itself from firmus, the source of English firm. The Latin word was used to translate Greek stereoma "firm or solid structure". This word had translated Hebrew raqia, which referred to both the vault of the sky and the floor of the earth in the Old Testament. It literally meant "expanse" from raqa "to hammer out, expand", but in Aramaic it meant "to make firm or solid", hence leading to the erroneous translation in Greek and Latin. Latin firmus descended from PIE dher-/dhor- "support, hold firm", which came to Sanskrit as dharma "law, statute". In Buddhism this word today refers to the immutable law of the universe as well as the teachings of Buddha. In Hinduism it refers to the laws respecting caste. But in the US it is the name of the goofy wife of Greg in the TV sitcom Dharma and Greg. (We firmly thank Kathleen McCune for keeping her head in the firmament long enough to come up with today's Good Word.)