/ker-OWN-uh/ /kəˈrəʊnə/. A crown or something crown-like. A flat projecting part of a cornice. A colored ring around the sun, moon or other object.
Seen up close—in enhanced microscopic imagery viewed from the comfort of my living room—the coronavirus, which is actually one of a group of cell-invading parasites that includes the infamous SARS virus, is a rather beautiful thing, an orb fringed by a halo of virions that resembles the similarly named corona of our sun.
OF course the name is no coincidence. Corona comes to us unchanged from the Latin corōna, meaning a crown, a garland or a circlet of precious metal, which was in turn derived from the Ancient Greek korṓnē of the same meaning. The first documented example of the word corona in English happens to be in a dictionary, Edward Phillips’ 1658 The New World of English Words where, in addition to the aforementioned crown or garland, it’s also noted that corona means a "clear circle appearing in cloud about the Sun, Moon, or any other bright Star" and, in architecture, the "flat and most advanced part of the Cornice" which, if you need a reminder (as I did), is the structure that sits at the top of the columns in classic architecture (think the Parthenon or the Acropolis).
The visual corona around the Sun is well known thanks to its dramatic visibility during solar eclipses. And who needs to know about the cornice thing, really? But the arresting image of the corona has led to its use in visual depictions of many kinds, from the elliptical rings of stars known as the Corona Australis and the Corona Borealis to the equally beautiful, in their own way, tonsures of Catholic clerics. Though it’s hard to make the aesthetic case for the corona veneris which is more vividly rendered as syphilitic forehead blotches!
If Corona makes you think of coronaries and coroners, then let me congratulate you on both your word-verve and your morbidness. But the connection is a little less direct than you might think. Long before John Quincy, M. E., was solving crimes from the basement of the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office, the Coroner was an officer of the British royal household (the Crown, get it?) responsible for managing and protecting the family’s private property. The name, though not necessarily those serving in the role, became medical coroners, or "crowners" as in Hamlet when one of the gravediggers says while digging Ophelia’s grave that they are to
make her grave straight: the crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.
The "crowner" refers to both the coroner and the coroner’s court, which would have deliberated, or sat on, Ophelia’s case and made the politically expedient determination that her drowning was accidental.
The coronary artery, responsible for the slangy medical shorthand of "having a coronary," is so named because, if you squint and employ the same imagination you must use to descry most constellations, they encircle the heart like a garland. This is also a great example of a process linguists call nominalization, where a noun is created from another part of speech.
Incidentally, artery is an interesting word too. Based on the Ancient Greek arteria, or windpipe, arteries were given this name because they are empty after death and were taken to be a kind of air duct which the ancient Greek philosopher and surgeon Galen—best known as my son’s namesake!—theorized to be part of the system of the vital pneuma that carried our soul within our body.
And the coronary connections continue. Corona, California, like various other cities, adopted the name based on the visual characteristics of the word, in this case a nearly 3-mile long, circular Grand Boulevard, designed by renowned architect and city planner Hiram Clay Kellogg. If that’s not enough to tempt you to visit this royal suburb, "The Circle City" is also home to celebrities such as the drummer for the pop-punk band Blink-182 and the woman who once played Stephanie Tanner, the middle child on the television show Full House.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the coronal connection to the Corolla (the car, not the Guinness World Record holding podcaster). In Latin the word corolla is a diminutive of corona, meaning "little garland." So it’s logical that Toyota would name its new car, the smaller sibling to the mostly-forgotten Toyota Corona, the Corolla. But that’s not all: the Toyota Camry derives its name from the Japanese kanmuri, a crown or cap.
But this isn’t Car Talk, so let’s end on a literary note. John Donne’s poetic sequence "La Corona" is a crown of sonnets, so called because of its circular form: each successive sonnet starts with the last line of the previous in the sequence. Apparently not finding that difficult enough, poets have created the heroic crown, a sequence of fifteen such interlinked sonnets, the last of which is composed only of the linking lines. This isn’t simply a curiosity: in the right hands the dense interweaving can be extraordinarily powerful, such as in Marilyn Nelson’s heroic crown sonnet sequence A Wreath for Emmett Till.
I don’t know if time is a flat circle and could have a corona, but I do know we are out of it. For more on the word corona and its many connections, including a few world currencies, why Michelangelo’s Moses on the Pope’s tomb has horns, the martyr Saint Corona, an excerpt from Marilyn Nelson’s heroic crown of sonnets and invocations of coronae in passages by May Swenson, Paul Celan and David Foster Wallace, go to katexic.com/kuac