Word of the Day


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a book of maps

Origin and usage

The noun atlas meaning a book of maps was first used in English in the first half of the 17th century. The word comes from the name of one of the ancient Greek gods known as the Titans. Atlas was believed to hold up the heavens and was portrayed doing this in early collections of maps.


In Greek mythology, the Titans were a race of gods who were defeated and supplanted by the Olympians, including Zeus. Atlas was condemned to hold up the heavens for eternity. His name was first associated with printed maps by the 16th century geographer Mercator who used it as part of the title of a book about the creation and nature of the universe. The word atlas subsequently came to be used to refer to books of maps, as well as to works that mapped out other physical systems such as the solar system or the human body. Atlas also lent his name to a range of mountains in north Africa that at one time was believed to hold up the heavens.


“Buy an atlas and keep it by the bed – remember you can go anywhere.”
(Joanna Lumley)

Related words

almanac, compendium, dictionary, thesaurus

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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