What’s the origin of the word eureka?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

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: eureka.

I was reading with interest a New Yorker story about the history of mass-market publishing, written by Louis Menard, when I came across the word eureka.

Here’s how Menard used it:

According to [Penguin Books] company legend, as Kenneth Davis explains in his indispensable history of the paperback book, Two-Bit Culture, [Penguin founder Allen] Lane had his eureka moment while standing in a railway station in Devon, where he had been spending the weekend with the mystery writer Agatha Christie and her husband. 

I was pretty sure eureka meant something like “revelatory” or perhaps even “wow!” or “zounds!” and I suspected it was Greek and I dimly recalled a story relating to a scientist. I was right about the Greek part, but not quite right about everything else.

In fact, the word means “I found it!” And it’s widely attributed to ancient Greek scholar Archimedes (pictured above) who apparently said it when he stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose. Suddenly, he understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had placed in the water.

I don’t know about you, but I find it deeply pleasurable to learn stories like this relating to the history of words we use every day.