Why In The World has ‘Planet’ Become the Word of Choice?

Member Group : James Edwards: Word Watch

"…the most original service on the planet!"
— advertisement for an Internet service

"Welcome to the youngest fleet on the planet."
— home page of Norwegian Cruise Lines

"Ross Jardines is one of the best traders on the face of the planet."
— radio advertisement for a broker

What we used to say, of course, is "the most original service in the world," or "the youngest fleet on Earth." We all understood this as a gross exaggeration — no one knew or cared whether or not it was true, but the reference to world or Earth meant the superlative was comprehensive. It was meant to impress.

Why, then, does this generation, as reflected in the ad writers quoted above, reach for the same superlative with the different word "planet"?

When we were young, did anyone ever say "Magellan was the first to sail around the … Earth"? No. Did they say, "Magellan was the first to sail around the … planet"? No. The proper utterance to convey meaning was, and still is, Magellan was the first explorer to sail around the world.

"World" in Webster’s is defined as the Earth, together with what’s in it (the firmament) and us, together with our spiritual side (ghosts and goblins). Up until relatively recently, we viewed ourselves as living "in" a world, somewhat the way a big spider lives "in" a terrarium: We’re in it and it’s all around us and we’re not getting out.

Also connect "in the world" with a childlike sense of "big" or "everything" (The tallest building in the world.) "Where in the world are my scissors?" (They could be anywhere.)

What we’ve come to grips with since man went into orbit in the 1960s, and landed on the moon and looked back at Earth is that we were first to look at the world and not be looking from it, but looking at it. We’d left it. Our perspective changed. The Apollos took pictures, now iconic, but then very new, of a cloudy green and blue ice-capped orb — our Earth — which was also the "world" as man had experienced it up until then. We could look at our terrarium from outside.

Suddenly, the "world" and the Earth separated in meaning. The "planet" has followed quickly.

My longtime friend is a scientist, and also an atheist. He believes that the Earth is a rock with some water and gas on it. Life, he believes, is an accidental collection of organic chemicals.

He’d be much more likely to describe our world as "the planet." He doesn’t want to address the spiritual, or the unknown or unseen or the undetectable.

I have believed for a long time that the way we talk about the affairs of our existence affects our thinking about things — we don’t know it’s happening, necessarily; it’s subconscious until someone points it out to us. I’ll point out now that it is my contention that the substitution of "on Earth" and "on the planet" for "in the world" is a secularization of our own world view that’s part of this trend.

Study the "on the face of the planet" one more time. Didn’t it sound like it was going to be "on the face of the earth"? Shouldn’t it more properly be "earth?" Once we got to "face," we should then hear "earth."

But a writer — perhaps consciously to employ this very youthful, hip formulation — substituted "planet." He possibly substituted it subconsciously — a more worrisome thought.

Either way, "planet" swooped right in as if it were a full substitute for "earth." And the meaning meant to be left with us is that "Ross Jardines is the best broker in the world."

Crazy world. Crazy, crazy world.

"Oh, what a world! What a world!"
— Wicked Witch of the West, melting, at the end of "The Wizard of Oz," 1939

James M. Edwards lives in Squirrel Hill.

Word Watch welcomes your observations on today’s lingo. Write to [email protected], send mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222, or call 412-263-1915.
First published on March 17, 2009 at 10:56 pm