What does ‘apogee’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: apogee….

I’ve seen the word apogee dozens of times in my reading. I knew, vaguely, that it meant the height or high spot of something. But I knew nothing about the etymology or origins of the term.

Most recently, I encountered the word in the memoir I am I am I am by Maggie O’Farrell.  Here is how she used it:

They felt to me, like the apogee of pain, of agony—it was as if my body was trying to turn itself inside out—but the nurses frowned at the monitor strapped to my belly.

Similar to the word culmination, (which means the position of a heavenly body when it is on the meridian), the root of apogee is found in Ptolemaic astronomy, which held the earth as the centre of the universe. In astronomy, apogee refers to the point in the orbit of an object — such as a satellite — orbiting the earth that is at the greatest distance from the centre of the earth.

It also means the point farthest from a planet or a satellite (such as the moon) reached by an object orbiting it. 

Today, more typically, however, apogee is used in its figurative sense, signifying the high point, endeavor, or state (“she was at the apogee of her profession,” or, in the sample above, “apogee of pain”). This meaning developed as a metaphorical extension of the word’s astronomical sense.

The word dates back to the 1590s, and comes from the from French apogée or from the Latin apogaeum, which in turn comes from the Greek apogaion, meaning “distance away from the earth.”

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on July 24/19.

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