There is something about November in the Northern Hemisphere that makes us yearn for today’s word. Whether it is due to exotic food and drink, the smell of tanning products, or just simply the lack of bone-chilling rain and the need for parkas and pullovers, this time of year, moving further from summer and closer towards winter, we all wish our environment was a bit more tropical. Sure, we all realise that, when looking at a map, “tropical” simply means a place between the Tropic of Cancer in the North and the Tropic of Capricorn in the South, but there is a lot more to it than that. Beyond daydreaming about papaya and kumquat, light clothes and long beaches, and beautifully bronzed skin, have you ever considered what the word itself actually means or where it comes from?
While our word “tropical” is an adjective variation of the word “tropic,” describing anything as relative to the location of the Tropics, there is more to this word than just a spot on the map. The word itself actually relates to the Sun and planetary movement, coming directly from the Late Latin tropicus, meaning “related to the solstice.” Previous to the Late Latin meaning, our word comes from the Greek tropikos, which “pertains to a turn or a change,” relating to what the ancient Greeks considered to be a turn of the Sun as it moved between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. As we now know, this is due to the movement of the Earth as well as its axial tilt.
The first “modern” Europeans to reach anywhere considered to be tropical were the Portuguese in the early 1400s off the coast of Southern Morocco, and from that point, we have been going regularly in greater numbers. Looking at 2 locations that are considered to be “tropical,” Hawaii and the Canary Islands, we can see this growth in action. Over the last year, the Canary Islands has seen tourism increase of almost 850,000 (7%) from 2013 to 2014, and spending among tourists has jumped 6.6% to €12.4 billion; looking at the U.S. State of Hawaii over the longer time, tourism has jumped from 1.748 million international travellers in 2009 to 2.710 million travellers in 2014, an increase of 55%. Beyond sheer numbers though, few can argue with the re-emergence in pop culture of Tiki bars, Polynesian food, and tropical decor.
The first known usage of our word comes from noted British writer, Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1391), and, in using the original definition of the word, describes a device used to measure celestial events for navigation: writing in A Treatise on the Astrolabe, “The plate under the right is described with 3 tropical circles, of which the last is called the circle of cancer.” The first use of our word as an actual adjective of anything within the designated geographical area occurs in 1571, via mathematician William Bourne, recognising the time difference based on the tropical axis, in A Regiment for the Sea, stating that “Yet some do affirm to be added hours, but there lacks 4 minutes and 47 seconds in the tropical year.” As for what we commonly think when the word enters our mind – tropical island – this phrase entered our lexicon in 1769 via Edward Bancroft’s Essential Natural History of Guiana, who write that, “The island of Barbadoes..is esteemed the most temperate and salubrious of all the tropical islands.”