In homage to the sinking of the eponymous ocean liner on its maiden voyage, 101 years ago this past Monday (at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912), today’s word is “titanic.”
When the Titanic set sail on her fateful trans-Atlantic crossing from Southampton, UK, she was the largest ship afloat on the planet, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew. There was no bigger vessel anywhere in the world. It’s no surprise, then, that most people automatically call to mind the Titanic when they hear the same word used to describe something massive, enormous, or colossal. For example, “The T. Rex was a titanic and terrifying dinosaur,” or “The fallout from her translation error reached titanic proportions.” (NOT something I would personally want to hear!)
However, what most people don’t know is that the word “titanic” as a synonym for huge or imposing was not inspired by the ship Titanic. It actually comes from the Titans of Greek mythology, and the builders of the great ocean liner, Harland and Wolff, named the jewel of their fleet after these mythical beings because of her vast size and speed.
The Titans were a race of powerful gods descended from Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky). They were immortal and possessed of incredible strength and stamina. Despite a series of gory actions, including castration, eating of small children, and chaining a prisoner to a rock and allowing an eagle to feast on his liver, all of which eventually led to their defeat by the Olympians, the Titans were apparently still impressive enough to have a word coined for them!
The titanic scale of the human disaster notwithstanding, I’m sure ship builders Harland and Wolff were more than a little shamefaced when their supposedly “unsinkable” ship met its demise at the hands of an iceberg in the icy waters off the coast of Newfoundland. Hardly what I’d call immortal!
So, the next time you hear an object or an action described as “titanic,” you can rightfully conjure up images of brawny, oiled-up Greek gods and goddesses clashing in epic battle, rather than the shell of a once-impressive giant rusting away slowly at the bottom of the sea.