Fata Morgana

I came across this word today while I was online. I’m not sure how I got to it, as my wanderings around the internet can be quite aimless, but something brought me to a list of Werner Herzog films, and seeing mention of his 1971 film reminded me of the term.

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s simply a fancy way to refer to a mirage. More specifically, it was originally used to refer to a specific type of mirage which can often be observed in the Straits of Messina between Sicily and mainland Italy. The name is the Italian translation of Morgan Le Fay, sorceress/witch/fairy half-sister of King Arthur in British legend. The effect was so named because people believed that the illusions they saw were her castle in the sky. And looking at this recent example from China, you can understand that:


We don’t use too many Italian loanwords in English, outside the realms of food and music anyway, but I can understand why we took Fata Morgana. As the effect itself is mysterious and exotic, we use a term from another language, because to us that’s mysterious and exotic in itself. Now Fata Morgana probably doesn’t sound particularly exotic if you’re Italian, or even French, Spanish or Portuguese (speaking), but  to us Anglophones it’s got an attractive, exotic ring to it, simply due to its difference from most common English words. And the reference to Morgan Le Fay really seals the deal: how much more sexily mysterious can you get!?

It’s also telling that the word mirage itself is of French origin. French really is English-speakers’ go-to language when we want to make something sound alluring. Just listen to the word: mirage…! It just slinks and sashays its way off the tongue, perfect to refer to the intriguingly exotic mystery of spotting seemingly magical and incredibly attractive water in the middle of the desert.

My reading about Fata Morgana on Wikipedia today also gave me the opportunity to improve my vocabulary. I’ve now discovered that a Fata Morgana is a type of superior mirage, a term I’d never heard of before. A superior mirage is one in which the illusion appears above the real object, and an inferior mirage is one in which the illusion appears below the real object. The classic water-in-the-desert mirage is an inferior mirage, as it’s actually an inverted image of the sky. I don’t tend to add to my English vocabulary much as I get older, but I can feel satisfied that today I’ve learned the terminology for different mirages. Never too old to learn!

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