Darin at PACHS has another in his occasional series of posts on the history of science of Philadelphia. This time he has written about a monument put up by the local Polish community to celebrate, as he writes, Mikolaj Kopernik a.k.a. Copernicus. He then goes on to explain that the monument has been taken up by the Fairmont Park Art Association in their Museum Without Walls but explains that in their explanation they emphasise the religion versus science dispute or debate.
However this monument actual represents a different and just as bitter dispute in the history of science, nationalism. Copernicus has to be the only scientist in the whole of history who has two official, designated by the respective governments, names, in Poland he is officially Kopernik and in Germany Kopernikus. The irony of this situation is that both names are 100% fake and historically incorrect.
The whole story starts at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the modern Copernicus myth. In the 16th century Copernicus enjoyed a reputation as one of Europe’s leading mathematical astronomers and as astronomers were not regarded as very high on the social scale that didn’t mean very much. In the 17th century his star waned and he just became an obscure astronomer from the north of Europe. Late in the 18th century intellectuals, led by Kant, started to create the myth of the scientific revolution with Copernicus as its leading player. This was also a period of extreme nationalism within Europe and with Copernicus’ raising status the question of his nationality became an important issue with both the Poles and the Germans staking a claim. This produced a bizarre orthographic war. The Poles took a lead claiming him for Poland and referring to him as Kopernik, supposedly his family name, and not Copernicus to emphasise his Polishness. The Germans countered by turning his Latin name into German with two Ks instead of the two Cs, the first case of this variant being produced by Herder. In the 20th century the Germans, in the shape of those ultra-nationalists the Nazis, introduced a law, actually the equivalent of an order in council, making the form Kopernikus obligatory in German spelling. It is one of the scandals of post Nazi Germany that this law is still in force.
As already stated the irony of this situation is that both the Polish and the German forms are completely bogus. Copernicus lived long before spelling in any European languages had been normalised, his original family name occurs on a number of official and bureaucratic documents in more than forty different orthographic variations but the one form that never occurs is Kopernik. The Latinised version of his name exists in about ten different variation but always written with Cs and never with Ks. The internationally accepted Copernicus is the variant used on the title page of his De revolutionibus.
The whole sorry dispute is made even more pathetic by the fact that Copernicus was neither a German nor a Pole but as I have pointed out before an Ermländer.