How Earth's Polar Opposites Were Named

Located in the farthest north region of our planet is the Arctic. It's a polar region that includes the Arctic Ocean and connected seas, plus parts of several countries, including Canada, Alaska (United States), Finland, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden.

At the opposite end of Earth is Antarctica, the most southern continent. It contains the South Pole and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. It's the fifth-largest continent but the least populated by far.

How did the Arctic and Antarctica get their names? Half of the answer seems self-evident. Given their relative locations, there's an internal logic to the name Antarctica—it's the ani-Arctic. As we'll see below, that logic holds, but there's more to the story. Let's explore the etymology of the words Arctic and Antarctica, including their link to a certain man-eating mammal and to a Greek language convention that has stood the test of time.

The name "Arctic" comes from the Greek word arktos, which translates to "bear." One might assume, given the presence of bears in the Arctic and the absence of bears in Antarctica, that we've arrived at a key point in our name origin study. In fact, the names Arctic and Antarctica have nothing to do with actual bears.

The origin of the name Arctic pertains to the northern constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the great and little bear, respectively. For centuries, both of these stellar groupings have been used for navigational purposes. They can be viewed in the northern hemisphere most of the year. Polaris, the North Star, is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor and it can be located based on its alignment with stars contained in Ursa Major.

The name Antarctica is based on a Roman version of the Greek word, antarktike, which means "no bears," but the word does not refer to the lack of bears in Antarctica. As in the English language, "anti" is a synonym for "opposite" in Greek, so Antarctica simply means opposite of Arctic.

We hope you enjoyed this brief look at the origin of the names Arctic and Antarctica. While a zoologist may correctly think of the Arctic as the "land of bears" and Antarctica as the "land of no bears," a well-informed geography buff might consider the Arctic "land of bear constellations" and think of Antarctica as the opposite of that place.