Monday, October 04, 2010


Fall is in the air. It better be, since it's October. Early Sunday morning, the heater kicked in, and did so again in the small hours this morning as frost gathered outside. The trees are now a mix of green with yellow and brown added, but yellow and brown are going to be the majority in a week or so. Late last week I even saw geese fly by in standard V formation, heading south. How much more autumnal can you get?

Naturally, at this time of year my thoughts turn to Sputnik. Apparently the 50th anniversary a few years ago inspired the creation of a documentary called Sputnik Mania, which has interesting trailer at least. Once upon a time, my eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Allen, challenged us kids to name a word that had come into the English language in a single day. Some smart aleck (maybe me) suggested "quiz," but he said that story of street urchins writing the word all over Dublin sounded like blarney, and I'll go along with that.

No, he said the word was "sputnik." On October 4, 1957 -- only 17+ years earlier, but impossibly long ago for 13- and 14-year-olds -- suddenly everyone knew what a "sputnik" was. Briefly, it seems, it was a synonym for "satellite." That can be seen in the Sputnik Mania trailer during a moment that shows English-language newspaper headlines reporting the explosion of the rocket meant to carry the U.S. Navy's Vanguard satellite into orbit on December 6, 1957. OH DEAR!!! screams the (UK?) Daily Mirror U.S. SPUTNIK BLOWS UP ON THE GROUND!!! Other headlines tell of Flopnik and Phutnik.

That usage didn't last, of course. English speakers weren't about to cede such an important word to the Russians, not when the Latinate satellite was available (note also that "artificial moon" has gone by the wayside, too). My American Heritage New College Dictionary tells me, curiously, that the root meanings of satellite and sputnik are about the same. The Latin satelles means "attendant, escort" (and is probably Etruscan in origin, of all things), while sputnik is generally translated "fellow traveler" -- of the Earth, not of the Communist Party -- with Indo-European roots ksun ("with") and pent ("tread," "go"). But let's not get too pedantic. No one is considering subscribing to sputnik TV as an alternative to cable these days.

In case that's not enough sputnik, there's always the unlikely combination of rockabilly and space in the song "Sputnik" by Jerry Engler and the Four Ekkos, which includes lyrics along these lines: "Oh! We're gonna get our kicks/ On a little ol' thing called a sputnik/I said spoo-spoo-spoot-a-nick-a-chick!" The song is here, complete with a video featuring of a rocket program unrelated to the first satellite. More (there's always more) about the song and songwriter is here, at a site promising "Cold War Music from the Golden Age of Homeland Security."

Or, you can listen to the beep-beep-beep.

Labels: , , , ,


At 5:48 AM, Anonymous david hoffman said...

I made the film Sputnik mania. It presents the experience that Americans felt when Sputnik flew over our heads. I was a young boy at the time. I do hope that you get the chance to see the entire film. I think, given the sense of yourself presented in your blog, that you would find it meaningful and enjoyable.

Thank you for mentioning my film,
David Hoffman


Post a Comment

<< Home