Eureka! A Word of Discovery

17 September, 2016

Hello! This is the VOA Learning English program, Words and Their Stories.

On this weekly program, we explore the origin and usage of common expressions in American English.

For example, sometimes when Americans do not understand something they say, ‘It's all Greek to me."

This saying does not make sense, of course, if you actually speak Greek. But today, we are going to talk about a Greek word and what it means in American English.

"Eureka!" is Greek for "I have found it!" It is something we say when we have figured out a solution to a complex problem.

Ancient Greek discoveries still play a part in our modern American English. Here an actor plays the role of an ancient Greek High Priestess during the Olympic flame lighting ceremony for the Rio 2016. (REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)
Ancient Greek discoveries still play a part in our modern American English. Here an actor plays the role of an ancient Greek High Priestess during the Olympic flame lighting ceremony for the Rio 2016. (REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis)

"Eureka" is a kind of interjection. Interjections are the quick, short words or sounds we cry out when we are feeling intense emotion. They can express pain, surprise, anger or joy. These kinds of words also are called exclamations.

Someone cries "Eureka" to express excitement when that person makes a discovery. When you finally find the answer to something you have been working on for a long time, nobody would blame for yelling "eureka!" from the rooftops.

The story behind "Eureka," however, is somewhat of a guess.

Some say it goes all the way back to the time of ancient Greece and an inventor named Archimedes (c. 287-212 B.C.E.). The king of Syracuse, Heiro II, gave Archimedes a difficult problem to solve. The king wanted to know if goldsmiths had used pure gold to make his crown.

This problem troubled Archimedes. How could he learn if the crown was pure gold?

One day, he stepped into the water of a bathtub. He saw that the water flowed over the top of the tub. The water that overflowed was displaced by his body.

When Archimedes climbed in and out of the bath, he carefully studied the displaced water. He noticed that the more his body sank into the water, the more water was displaced. This meant that the displaced water measured his volume exactly.

Suddenly, Archimedes realized how he could test the gold in the king's crown. He knew that gold is heavier than silver. So, he reasoned that a crown mixed with silver would have to be bulkier than one made only of gold if both weighed the same. Therefore, it would displace more water than a crown of pure gold.

Archimedes, allegedly, became so excited by this discovery that he jumped out of the bath and ran naked through the city streets, shouting: "Eureka! Eureka!" meaning, "I have found it! I have found it!"

In another version of the story, the king gives a different puzzle to Archimedes to solve. Archimedes must figure out how to build a massive ship that won't sink. Again, he supposedly makes his discovery in a public bath.

This TedED video was written by Armand D'Angour and animated by Zedem Media.

Both are great stories, but most likely, Archimedes never said "Eureka!" And who knows if he really ran through the streets naked.

What we do know is that Archimedes discovered the law or buoyancy, or what engineers still call today, the Archimedes principle.

But let's go back to "eureka" as an expression.

"Eureka!" has another historic connection to gold.

This time it happened during more modern times in the United States. During the California gold rush, prospectors looking for gold in the Californian hills were said to yell "Eureka! I found it!" when they struck gold. To this day, California's state motto is Eureka!

The word "Eureka!" also lives on in scientific communities. The American Association for the Advancement of Science calls its breaking scientific news site EurekAlert.

However, these days, saying "Eureka!" as a way of expressing an amazing discovery is out of style.

One interjection that has replaced "eureka" is "a-ha!" But both "eureka moments" and "a-ha moments" are used to describe the times we are experiencing a breakthrough discovery.

Albert Einstein arriving at his theory of relativity and Isaak Newton getting hit on the head with an apple are both examples of eureka moments.

Here is how to use it in everyday conversation.

If your classmate or work colleague seems to be about to discover something big and important, others might warn you to stay away. "Don't bother her. She's having a Eureka moment."

Sometimes we just say, lightbulb!

When a character in comics or in an animated film has a really great idea, sometimes a lightbulb appears above their head. So, saying "lightbulb" is a funny way of saying, "I just had a brilliant idea!"

Scene from the movie Despicable Me.

And that brings us to the end of another Words and Their Stories. Hey, I know ... lightbulb! If you have a eureka moment, you can share it in the Comments Section!

I'm Anna Matteo.

"Lightbulb, hanging over my head
I hope you're never gonna go out, never go out."

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOANews Mario Ritter was the editor. The song at the end is Rachal Goodrich singing "Lightbulb."


Words in This Story

line n. merchandise or services of the same general class for sale or regularly available

brand n. a category of products that are all made by a particular company and all have a particular name

goldsmith n. a person who makes gold jewelry and other gold items

volume n. the amount of space occupied by a three-dimensional object as measured in cubic units (as quarts or liters) :

bulky adj. having great volume in proportion to weight

prospector n. someone who explores an area for natural resources

Law of buoyancy (Archimedes' principle) indicates that the upward buoyant force that is exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces and it acts in the upward direction at the center of mass of the displaced fluid.

buoyancy n. the tendency of a body to float or to rise when submerged in a fluid; the power of a fluid to exert an upward force on a body placed in it; also : the upward force exerted

breakthrough n. a sudden increase in knowledge, understanding, etc. : an important discovery that happens after trying for a long time to understand or explain something