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sextant (SEK-stuhnt) noun

A navigational instrument having a 60-degree arc, for measuring altitude of stars and planets.

[From New Latin sextans, sextant-, from Latin sextus (sixth part, the instrument's arc is a sixth of a circle), from Latin sex (six).]

Latin sex is also the source of such words as semester, from Latin (cursus) semestris (course) of six months; senary, of or relating to the number six; sestina, a verse form that includes six-line stanzas; sextet, a composition for or a group of six musicians; and sextodecimo, a page size when a printer's sheet is folded into sixteen leaves.

"In a passage where she likens her own journey as an author to two of the Polaris explorers, (Sheila) Nickerson is compelling: `This is dangerous work requiring a correction in course, but I have no tools. I am worse off than Meyer who had a sextant and ice-horizon, but no nautical almanac. I am worse off than Tyson, who had no equipment at all but depths of experience. I have neither, only an obsessive desire to find the
truth.'" Kimberly B. Marlowe; An Unlikely And Forgotten Heroine of the Arctic (Book review: Midnight to the North: The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition); The Seattle Times; Mar 31, 2002.

"McCoy smiled soothingly, but the captain glared about him like a madman, fetched his sextant, and took a chronometer sight."
Jack London; The Seed of McCoy; 1909.

This week's Guest Wordsmith, Stewart Edelstein, writes:

When confused, we are "at sixes and sevens"; when at a disadvantage, we are "behind the eight ball"; when elated, "in seventh heaven" and "on cloud nine"; and when perfected, "a ten". When we discard, we "deep six" or "86"; when we get all gussied up, we dress "to the nines"; and when we do it all, we go "the whole nine yards". In this last quarter of the year, when our months are named for the seventh through tenth months of the ancient Roman calendar (it began in March), it is timely to consider words based on the numbers six through ten, even though in ancient Rome Sextilis was renamed Augustus, in honor of Augustus Caesar.

(Stewart Edelstein is an attorney and the author of Dubious Doublets: A Delightful Compendium of Unlikely Word Pairs of Common Origin, from Aardvark/Porcelain to Zodiac/Whiskey. Anu Garg is traveling.)


A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight. -Robertson Davies, writer (1913-1995)

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