/ Etymology and Onomastics, No. 2
Toggle Dark Mode


By Una Ada, August 04, 2023

Of the 30 quadrangles of Mars1 used in areography, the most interesting is usually considered to be Oxia Palus (MC-11). This interest is owed to evidence of water on the Martian surface, including clay-rich sediment deposits,2 possible remnants of springs,3 and the Ares Valles as an outflow channel.4 It also has some cultural relevance, both with the landing site of the Mars Pathfinder5 and Mark Watney’s journey in The Martian passing through the area.6 My interest, while purely geomorphological in nature at first, has now turned a tad etymological. After all, Oxia Palus is quite the interesting name.

The names of quadrangles are derived from classical names for albedo features on the planet.7 A list of said features claims the meaning is taken from Oxeia (Οξεία), a Greek island of the Echinades. This is doubtful as a namesake, given that the island is uninhabited and owned entirely by Qatar.8

It’s not even the most interesting island named Oxeia. Sivriada is an island of the Adalar9 archipelago and thus falls within the Municipality of Adalar, İstanbul, Türkiye.10 Like all the islands of Adalar, Sivriada has a history of imprisoning the unwanted, from the Saint11 Plato of Sakkoudion12 to 30,000 dogs in what has been dubbed the “Hayırsızada Dog Massacre.”13 Note that oxeia means ‘sharp,’ in the sense of ‘acute,’ as in a typographic accent14 or geometric angle.15 Derived from the Ancient Greek ‘ὀξεῖα’ of the same meaning,16 whence ‘ὀξύς’ (sharp/pointed),17 Oxeia being a name for Sivriada makes sense, as sivri is a Turkish term for ‘sharp.’18 Interesting as this may be, it does not answer the question, these are all dead ends.

As usual, asking only the specifics is doomed to fail; thus, we shall broaden the scope a bit. In 1958, an ad hoc committee of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) chaired by Adouion Dollfus, similar to a previous committee for the Moon,19 recommended the adoption of 128 names for surface features on Mars,20 including Oxia Palus and Oxus.21 While a number of nomenclatures existed for Mars through the 19th century,22 the one that survived to lend itself to the names chosen for the IAU23 stemmed from the work of Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli.

Schiaparelli began his study of Mars with its 1877 opposition;24 though initially hesitant to do so at all,25 he mapped his observations with a previously unattained level of fidelity.26 Eschewing Richard A. Proctor’s nomenclature for the mapped features,27 Schiaparelli here introduced his own names drawn from classical and Biblical literature.28 Such a choice of names was not without precedent, as Johannes Hevelius had utilized an equally esoteric scheme for lunar features in 1647.29 Neither was he the first to observe the canali on Mars,30 the term itself adopted from Angelo Secchi’s canale;31 he was merely the first to include such number of them in a map as he did.32 While there is much to be said about the notion of the canali, which were in English translated as ‘canals’ rather than the more naturalistic ‘channels,’33 let’s exercise a modicum of restraint for the moment and discuss only the naming thereof.

To fully understand Schiaparelli’s integration of classical names, we need not only consider the names themselves, but their order as well: “the dividing line on Mars reflects the day’s journey of Helios from the East to the West.”34 That is to say that traversal of the Martian equator was to parallel such a trek across the Old World, from the Far East, through the Levant and Egypt, to the Underworld in the west. This remained true for the canali, named for rivers of those lands, reflecting the same longitudinal order as Greek or Roman maps. Indeed, in Schiaparelli’s map of his observations during the 1879 opposition,35 we can find our enigmatic Oxus between the ancient Indus and the Biblical Gihon.36

Oxus (Ὤξος) referred to a great river of Central Asia per geographers of classical antiquity;37 the name is now considered to have referred to the Amu Darya.38 So named for the city Āmul, itself since having bore the names Chardzhou (Çärjew) whence Persian čahârjuy (‘four brooks’),39 Leninsk in honor of Vladimir Lenin, and now Türkemenabat whence Türkmen + ābād (‘town of’).40 The Amu demarcates the border of Karakum with Kyzylkum;41 its rich deposits drawn from these deserts, while causing frequent changes in its riverbed and thus difficult navigation,42 naturally beget civilizations within its fertile valleys.43 So salient has the Oxus been historically that to cross it into Transoxiana, or Mā Warā’ an-Nahr,44 would be seen as a great achievement for military campaigns in Central Asia.45 Nonetheless, our concerns are not with the banks but with the terminus of the river.

It’s undeniable that the Amu Darya flows into the Aral Sea, but historically it has been said that the Oxus flowed into the Caspian Sea.46 This, of course, lends itself to some confusion over whether or not the Oxus truly refers to the Amu. Regardless, there existed a classical term explicitly designating the sea into which the Oxus flows: Oxia Palus47 (or Oxiānus Lacus).48

Oxia Palus as a Martian toponym is credited49 to Percival Lowell in 1894. A true believer in the canals on Mars,50 Lowell set out to document them51 as well as the oases52 into which they supposedly flowed.53 It was in this process that he named Oxia Palus, an oasis at the end of the Oxus. Within the first volume of the Annals of the Lowell Observatory, however, Oxia Palus does not appear on the list of oases,54 but alongside the observations of “spots in the dark regions.”55 Still, within the indices for Lowell’s map, the ‘oasis’ Oxia Palus is indeed marked.56

Lowell famously stated that “[f]or a brand-new thing no name is so good as one whose meaning nobody knows, except one that has no meaning at all.”57 Thus one should know not to expect justification from the man regarding names. In truth, in this case the best we get can be found in the third Annals:58

“I marked a spot at the bottom of the Margaritifer Sinus, or Pearl-bearing Gulf, darker than the rest of the gulf and around. […] Lying as it did in the depths of the ‘Sea,’ fancy saw in it the pearl after which the gulf, as if by some strange prescience, had been named. On the map in Volume I of the Annals it is called Oxia Palus by inadvertence; the Margarita59 it should have been baptized.”

This retcon, obviously, did not manage to take hold. The oasis retained the name Oxia Palus, which was then accepted by the IAU, and eponymous of the United States Geological Survey (USGS)’s quadrangle covering the region.

Lowell’s adamant assertion in not only the existence of the canals,60 but that they were of artificial origin,61 can be said to have been a great detriment to the field of planetary science.62 His theories, however, inspired a great amount of science fiction regarding the planet,63 and many novels from the 20th century would use a “Lowell-Schiaparellian pattern”64 for Mars with deserts and water-bearing canals.

Once again, there were a number of branching paths stemming from this topic that I opted not to travel too far along: the Iconoclast, military conquest of Transoxiana, various rivers identified as the Gihon, depictions of Martian canals in science fiction, &c. Yet, I must trim the scope somewhere and, as the impetus has been quenched, that somewhere is here.


  1. The number of quadrangles was determined by the USGS in 1973 based on the resolution of the Mariner 9 probe and to ensure that any topographical features could be legibly labeled at map scale.

    R. M. Batson, “Cartographic Products from the Mariner 9 Mission,” Journal of Geophysical Research 78, 20 (July 1973): 4424-4435, doi:10.1029/jb078i020p04424 ↩︎

  2. D. Loizeau, N. Mangold, F. Poulet, V. Ansan, E. Hauber, J.-P. Bibring, B. Gondet, Y. Langevin, P. Masson, G. Neukum, “Stratigraphy in the Mawrth Vallis region through OMEGA HRSC color imagery and DTM,” Icarus 205, 2 (2010): 396-418, doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2009.04.018

    D. Loizeau, N. Mangold, F. Poulet, J.-P. Bibring, J. L. Bishop, J. Michalski, and C. Quantin, “History of the clay-rich unit at Mawrth Vallis, Mars: High-resolution mapping of a candidate landing site,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 120, 11 (2015): 1820-1846, doi:10.1002/2015JE004894 ↩︎

  3. Carlton C. Allen and Dorothy Z. Oehler, “A Case for Ancient Springs in Arabia Terra, Mars,” Astrobiology 8, 6 (2008): 1093-1112, doi:10.1089/ast.2008.0239. ↩︎

  4. Michael H. Carr, “Channels, valleys, and gullies,” The Surface of Mars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 114. ↩︎

  5. Matthew P. Golobek, “The Mars Pathfinder Mission,” Journal of Geophysical Research 102, E2 (February 1997): 3957, doi:10.1029/96JE02805. ↩︎

  6. This is a funny factoid to include, given that neither the starting position not the ending position of Watney are within the quadrangle.

    The route of ‘The Martian’ - from Chryse Planitia over Arabia Terra in the Martian highlands to Ares 4,” Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, Apr 2015. ↩︎

  7. Batson, “Cartographic Products…,” 4426.

    G. de Vaucouleurs, J. Blunck, M. Davies, A. Dollfus, I. K. Koval, G. P. Kuiper, H. Masursky, S. Miyamoto, V. I. Moroz, Carl Sagan, and Bradford Smith, “The New Martian Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union,” Icarus 26 (1975):85-98. ↩︎

  8. Nick Squires, “Qatar royal family buys Greek island of Oxia for knockdown €5m,” The Telegraph, Apr 25, 2012. ↩︎

  9. The Turkish name, Adalar, literally translates to “islands.” The English name for the archipelago is Princes’ Islands (Prens Adaları), which supposedly comes from the Byzantine Empire’s usage of the islands for exiling nobles. Alternatively, they could be called Istanbul Islands (İstanbul Adaları) based on its adjacency to Istanbul, or Red Islands (Kızıl Adalar) based on the color of their soil. There’s also the historic Greek name, predating the Byzantine name, of Demonisi (Δημόνησοι). ↩︎

  10. Confusingly, the Wikipedia article for Sivriada state’s that it is “officially a neighbourhood in the Adalar district…,” which is not true. It’s uninhabited, of course it isn’t officially a neighborhood. Five of the larger islands of the archipelago, however, are neighborhoods.

    İstanbul İlçeleri,” Türkiye Nüfusu İl ilçe Mahalle Köy Nüfusları, Retrieved Aug. 2, 2023. ↩︎

  11. Saint Plato,”, Retrieved Aug. 2, 2023. ↩︎

  12. Thomas Pratsch, Theodoros Studites (789-826) - zwischen Dogma und Pragma (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1998), 173.

    Georgius Fatouros, Theodori Studitae Epistulae (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), 14*, doi:10.1515/9783110865141

    Cholij’s work is also commonly cited on this topic and is thankfully written in English. However, despite citing Fatouros, Cholij claims that Plato was exiled to Prote rather than Oxia.

    Roman Cholij, Theodore the Stoudite: The Ordering of Holiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 52. ↩︎

  13. Sesim rüzgara: Modern bir sürgün hikayesi, directed by Emre Sarikus (2010). ↩︎

  14. Greek Diacritics,” Wikipedia, Retrieved Aug. 1, 2023. ↩︎

  15. οξεία,” Wiktionary, Retrieved Aug. 1, 2023. ↩︎

  16. ὀξεῖα,” Wiktionary, Retrieved Aug. 2, 2023. ↩︎

  17. ὀξύς,” Wiktionary, Retrieved Aug. 1, 2023. ↩︎

  18. sivri,” Wiktionary, Retrieved Aug. 2, 2023. ↩︎

  19. History of Planetary Nomenclature,” Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature, Retrieved Aug. 2, 2023. ↩︎

  20. A. Dollfus, “16a Sous-Commission de la Nomenclature Martienne,” Transactions of the International Astronomical Union 10 (1960): 259-263, doi:10.1017/S0251107X00020848. ↩︎

  21. Dollfus, “16a Sous-Commission…,” 262. ↩︎

  22. To name a few notable cases: Wilhelm Beer and Johann Heinrich von Mädler, Angelo Secchi, Camille Flammarion, Richard A. Proctor, and Nathaniel Everett Green↩︎

  23. Jürgen Blunck, Mars and its Satellites: A Detailed Commentary on the Nomenclature 2ed. (Smithtown, NY: Exposition Press, 1982), 1. ↩︎

  24. William Sheehan, The Planet Mars: A History of Observation & Discovery (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1996), 63. ↩︎

  25. Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 71. ↩︎

  26. Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 72.

    Hugh H. Kieffer, Bruce M. Jakosky, and Conway W. Snyder, “The Planet Mars: From Antiquity to the Present,” Mars, ed. Hugh H. Kieffer, Bruce M. Jakosky, Conway W. Snyder, and Mildred S. Matthews (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1992), 7. ↩︎

  27. Blunck, Mars and its Satellites, 5. ↩︎

  28. Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 73.

    Merton E. Davies, Raymond M. Watson, and Sherman S. C. Wu, “Geodesy and Cartography,” Mars, ed. Hugh H. Kieffer, Bruce M. Jakosky, Conway W. Snyder, and Mildred S. Matthews (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1992), 325. ↩︎

  29. Blunck, Mars and its Satellites, 2. ↩︎

  30. Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 77. ↩︎

  31. Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 51. ↩︎

  32. Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 75. ↩︎

  33. Schiaparelli tended towards describing them as natural features, often synonymously dubbing them rivers (fiume).65 He, as well, did not approve of the translation to ‘canal.’66 ↩︎

  34. Blunck, Mars and its Satellites, 4. ↩︎

  35. G. V. Schiaparelli, Osservazione Astronomiche e Fisiche: Sull’asse di Rotazione e Sulla Topografia del Pianeta Marte Memoria Seconda, (Rome: Coi Tipi del Salviucci, 1881), 161. ↩︎

  36. Given the time already invested in this article, I will be exercising self-control vis-à-vis the historiographical context surrounding the rivers’ locations and relative positioning. I’m also, quite maturely, brushing aside the fact that the name is spelled ‘Gehon’ on Schiaparelli’s maps. Furthermore, I shall be ignoring the reasons why, on later maps, it shows up as ‘Gehon I;’ this is despite already having a general grasp on the topic as well as a number of yet to be collated sources. ↩︎

  37. Edward Boucher James, “OXUS,” Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, ed. Sir William Smith (London: Walton and Maberly, 1854), 506-507. ↩︎

  38. Oxus,” Wiktionary, Retrieved Aug. 4, 2023. ↩︎

  39. Chardzhou,” Wiktionary, Retrieved Aug. 4, 2023. ↩︎

  40. Türkmenabat,” Wikipedia, Retrieved Aug. 4, 2023. ↩︎

  41. Edgar Knobloch, Beyond the Oxus: Archaeology, Art, and Architecture of Central Asia (London: Ernest Benn, 1972), 9. ↩︎

  42. Knobloch, Beyond the Oxus, 10. ↩︎

  43. Knobloch, Beyond the Oxus, 11. ↩︎

  44. Mā Warā’ al-Nahr,” Encyclopædia Iranica, Retrieved Aug. 4, 2023. ↩︎

  45. I’m not going to cite anything here, you can’t make me, I don’t care anymore. Fuck military history, oh my god. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. ↩︎

  46. Oxus,” ed. Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Disctionary of Classical Antiquities (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1898). ↩︎

  47. Edwards Boucher James, “OXIA PALUS,” Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, ed. Sir William Smith (London: Walton and Maberly, 1854). ↩︎

  48. Oxia Palus,” ed. Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1898). ↩︎

  49. Blunck, Mars and its Satellites, 64. ↩︎

  50. Percival Lowell, Mars and its Canals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1906). ↩︎

  51. Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 105. ↩︎

  52. The term ‘oases’ for these regions was first coined by William Henry Pickering.

    C.M. Michaux, Handbook of the Physical Properties of the Planet Mars (Scientific and Technical Information Division, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1967), 127. ↩︎

  53. Blunck, Mars and its Satellites, 11. ↩︎

  54. Oases,” Annals of the Lowell Observatory 1 (1898): 216↩︎

  55. Oases,” Annals of the Lowell Observatory 1 (1898): 241-243. ↩︎

  56. Percival Lowell, “Part III. Maps of the Planet,” Annals of the Lowell Observatory 1 (1898): 379-386. ↩︎

  57. Percival Lowell, Mars (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1895), 143. ↩︎

  58. “Opposition of 1894. From the Syrtis Major to the Indus,” Annals of the Lowell Observatory 3 (1905): 12↩︎

  59. I know, generally and from the context, that ‘margarita’ means ‘pearl;’ yet, for the sake of verification, I had searched on-line to double check. The temptation to punch a hole through the monitor upon seeing first result for the query ‘margarita meaning’ being a description of the cocktail was palpable. ↩︎

  60. K. Maria D. Lane, Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 7-12. ↩︎

  61. Lane, Geographies of Mars, 46-48

    Michaux, Handbook…, 129.

    Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 108-111. ↩︎

  62. Kieffer et al., “The Planet Mars,” 8. ↩︎

  63. Blunck, Mars and its Satellites, 180. ↩︎

  64. Everett F. Bleiler, Science-Fiction: The Early Years (Kent, Ohio: The Kent University Press, 1990), 817. ↩︎

  65. Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 75-76. ↩︎

  66. Sheehan, The Planet Mars, 240. ↩︎


Aug. 4, 2023: Added link to Wikipedia article for reference on oppositions in astronomy. Added full names and organization website links for the IAU and USGS.

Aug. 12, 2023: Fix typos in footnotes 54 (“Annals fo” to “Annals of”) and 59 (“a whole through” to “a hole through”).