Elements of the Universe: Terra

The ancients believed that the universe, or the kosmos/cosmos, was composed of five basic elements: earth, air, fire, water, and sky. (When advances in technology revealed more elements that were much smaller, these classical five were reclassified as states of matter--solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.) The ancient words for these elements show up in our language today, through Greek and Latin roots for earth (terra, geo), water (hydor, aqua), fire (ignis, pyr), and words from the sky including air (aer, ventus, aither), star (astron), and sun (sol).

Find words from cosmos here, then check out lists from other Greek and Latin word-forming elements: cosmos, terra, geo, hydor, aqua, ignis, pyr, aer, ventus, aither, astron, sol

Activities for this list:

definitions & notes only words
  1. terrain
    a piece of ground having specific characteristics
    The blaze is burning in steep, rugged terrain covered in thick, dense brush and dead trees.Los Angeles Times (Jul 30, 2015)
    terra (earth)
    Some of the adjectives that describe the specific characteristics of this terrain that caught fire over 8,300 acres are:
    1) steep ("having a sharp inclination")
    2) rugged ("topographically very uneven")
    3) thick, dense ("hard to pass through because of heavy growth")
    4) dead (fortunately, this does not apply to any of the terrans--people living on or near the terrain).
  2. terrestrial
    relating to the land as opposed to the sea or air
    We used to rely on two feet and a heartbeat for all terrestrial travel.The Guardian (Jun 22, 2015)
    terra (earth) + ial (suffix forming adjectives)
    In addition to the alliteration, the phrase "terrestrial travel" sounds like something from science fiction. The article deliberately takes on that tone to emphasize its point that walking around on our own feet, even when we have other options, is not an unearthly idea.
  3. territory
    the geographical area under the jurisdiction of a state
    With Hitler and Mussolini now allies - leaders of the Axis powers - Italy's North African colonies became enemy territory.BBC (Aug 8, 2015)
    terra (earth) + ory (suffix meaning "place")
    The example sentence uses the noun literally. But an individual can also figuratively claim a territory as "an area of knowledge or interest."
  4. territorial
    defending a region from intruders
    A mammal in the wilderness experiences the thrill of the hunt, procreation, killing, territorial battles.Time (Jul 13, 2015)
    terra (earth) + ory (suffix meaning "place") + al (suffix forming adjectives)
    In a global world, being territorial is often seen as a negative quality. But the example sentence uses the adjective with "thrill" and "procreation" because its source is a director who believes that good stories have a duty to scare audiences so that they can experience those wild emotions in a safe way.
  5. terrace
    make land into level shelves, as for cultivation
    They are built on about six terraced levels of the mountain, with startling views of the valley and down to the rushing river below.New York Times (Aug 6, 2015)
    terra (earth)
    The example sentence uses the word as an adjective formed from the past participle of the verb. This definition connects most closely to the Latin root. Nowadays, a terrace could also be the features on a level shelf of land: 1) usually paved outdoor area adjoining a residence; 2) a row of similar houses having common dividing walls.
  6. terrene
    belonging to this earth or world; not ideal or heavenly
    But the visitor could not convey celestial realities to terrene minds.Lind-af-Hageby, L. (Lizzy)
    terra (earth)
    As the structure of the example sentence shows, "terrene" and "celestial" are antonyms. But the source is a 1917 book about a topic that is simultaneously terrene and celestial: the worship of mountains. While the adjective "celestial" is still in use, "terrene" is now rarely seen.
  7. terrier
    any of several breeds of small, short-bodied dog
    Using your Yorkshire terrier as a guest towel should probably be a last resort.Washington Post (Jun 24, 2015)
    terra (earth)
    The Old French name for this breed translates into "earth dog." A terrier will chase its prey, such as foxes, rabbits, and mice, both on top of the earth and through underground homes and hiding places. The humor of the example sentence comes from the image of the fluffiest and most popular terrier breed. But there are also breeds that have smooth and hairless coats that could not be mistaken for terry cloths.
  8. terrarium
    transparent container in which plants and animals are kept
    The participants were then asked to gradually approach a tarantula in a terrarium but, on average, could get no closer than 10 feet.US News (May 22, 2012)
    terra (earth) + orium (suffix meaning "place")
    The word was coined from "aquarium" and was originally used to differentiate from containers for plants that live in water. But as the example sentence suggests, the dry environment of a terrarium can also house insects and small reptiles.
  9. terreplein
    level space where heavy guns can be mounted behind the parapet at the top of a rampart
    Our artillery harassed them from the ramparts also although the trenches and terrepleins did not allow us to do them much harm.Robertson, James Alexander
    terra (earth) + plenus (full)
    While terrepleins are usually wide level spaces that can absorb enemy fire while allowing its own cannons stable shots, they can also be similar to trenches, where the earth has been dug out (rather than filled).
  10. terra firma
    the solid part of the earth's surface
    In all this we are in the wonderland of myth, not the terra firma of history.MacCulloch, J. A.
    terra (earth); firma (strong, stable)
    Originally, terra firma was in contrast to the sea (or the rockiness of a boat on the sea). Here, it is used figuratively to contrast the solid facts, figures, and places in history with the unreal territory of myths.
  11. terra cotta
    a hard unglazed brownish-red earthenware
    For a cheap toad house, turn a small terra cotta pot on its side, and bury it partially into the dirt.US News (May 11, 2015)
    terra (earth); cotta (baked)
    "Cotta" is an Italian adjective that comes from the Latin verb "coquere" which means "to cook." Because cooked earth is usually brownish-red, the term, sometimes combined into one word and other times hyphenated, can also be used as a colorful adjective for things that are not made of clay.
  12. terra incognita
    an unknown and unexplored region
    Possibly more than any other populated place on the globe, North Korea is terra incognita.Washington Times (Oct 23, 2014)
    terra (earth); incognitus (unknown)
  13. extraterrestrial
    originating, located, or occurring outside Earth
    There will be no aliens poking forth from bellies or monument-blasting battles with extraterrestrials; it’s just about us humans.Washington Times (Oct 30, 2014)
    extra (prefix meaning "outside") + terra (earth) + ial (suffix forming adjectives)
    The word started as an adjective in the early 1800s. By 1956, it gained recognition as a noun. Now, the mention of an e.t. can call to mind specific images of alien life forms.

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