Daily Archives: October 29, 2010

naiad

Not too long ago I read an article about a swimmer. Not just any swimmer: a woman who holds the record for the fastest ten-mile swim across Lake Ontario. A woman who swam 102.5 miles from Bimini, Bahamas, to Jupiter, Florida. And then took 30 years off. And now is planning a 103-mile swim from Cuba to Key West… at age 60.

A regular spirit of the water, eh? Now, what did the Greeks call the spirits that lived in the water? Naiads. Specifically, a naiad is a water nymph (of the sort painted gladly by the pre-Raphaelites such as John William Waterhouse). The word naiad by extension also refers to juvenile dragonflies, damselflies, and mayflies; a certain flowering plant; a freshwater mussel; and an expert female swimmer.

So clearly the freshwater (and saltwater) muscles of this expert female swimmer belong to a naiad, yes? Yes and yes, in fact. Her name is Diana Nyad. And no, that’s not a made-up name; she was born Diana, and her mother married a man whose last name was Nyad. It just happens that nyad is an alternate spelling of naiad (though I cannot say for certain that naiad is the origin of her stepfather’s family name), and Diana is an anagram of naiad. Really, how perfect is that, eh? (But maybe don’t call her a nymph.)

Perhaps it’s just me, but the na seems to have a bit of a water association. Maybe I’m thinking natation (swimming); maybe I’m thinking French words such as navire, naufrage, and nager; maybe I’m thinking of Nadi, capital of Fiji (which is a bunch of islands); maybe I’m thinking of navy. Perhaps the source of that association is at root not available (n/a). The word naiad as a whole at least is pleasing to the eye, with a certain central symmetry; in the mouth, the word’s symmetry is nearly exact, as long as you don’t take into account the raising of the velum, which makes the nasal /n/ become a stop /d/.

The word naiad might seem also to have something of a flavour of not only ocean but Oceania, the naia tasting a bit of Polynesian tongues, but like Oceania and Polynesia the word naiad comes to us from Greek – the ad ending might be a hint: there’s Iliad, myriad, pleiad, and quite a few others, including some other types of nymphs.

Speaking of other types of nymphs, it’s worth pointing out that naiads are associated specifically with springs and fresh water. Diana Nyad is perhaps better known for her saltwater feats, and the nymphs associated with saltwater are called oceanids. Unless they’re in the Mediterranean, that is, in which case they’re called nereids. But, you know, you go with what you have…

Oh, and if a naiad is wet, what do you call a nymph associated with something dry? Well, if that dry thing is a tree, then the nymph is a dryad. Convenient, no?