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On August 6 the Curiosity rover, which had been launched by NASA at the end of November last year, successfully landed on the planet Mars. As with the 1969 moon landing, Australian scientists played a crucial role in this international endevour, and NASA administrator Charlie Balden made special mention of the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla, which is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network. Tidbinbilla was the only space station which was facing Mars for the descent, making it uniquely positioned to transit data from Mars to the Earth.

Curiosity landed on the Gale crater, which is believed to be more than 3 billion years old. The main goal of the mission is to determine whether life could ever have existed on Mars, and it is thought by some scientists that the Gale crater could have contained water at some point. If they are correct, this would make life on Mars a real possibility.

The Gale crater is named after Walter Frederick Gale, an early twentieth century amateur astronomer from Sydney. A banker by profession, Walter Gale made several important astronomical observations, including discovering seven comets. He also examined the surface of Mars, and was a keen supporter of the idea that the planet could contain life.

The surname Gale can be from an Old English nickname for someone who was cheerful, merry or fun-loving by nature. The Normans had a male personal name Geil, meaning the same thing, and that can be another source of the name. Another possibility is that is from the Norman-French word for “gaol”, perhaps denoting someone who worked as a gaoler, or even lived near a gaol. The surname Gale is mostly found in the southern coastal areas of England, but it is also commonly found in Yorkshire, leading to the possibility that there it may be from the Norse word geil, meaning “deep ravine”.

As a vocabulary word, gale has more meanings than you may suspect. It is an old dialect word meaning “to sing”, with connotations of “charm, enchant”, but also referring to birdsong. Gale Day is an old legal term, meaning the day that a tenant’s rent was due to be paid. Sweet gale is another name for the bog myrtle (Myrica gale); a shrub which typically grows in peat bogs. Its sweet scent has seen it used to flavour beer, and to make perfumes, and it’s one of the plants traditionally used in Royal wedding bouquets.

Of course, when we hear the word gale, we most likely think of a strong wind, especially those which feature in storms. It may also remind us of the phrase gales of laughter, which seems to tie in pretty neatly with its original meaning of “cheerful, merry”.

Gale was originally a male name, and taken directly from the surname. It isn’t found as a female name on the US charts until the 1930s – not surprisingly, this correlates with the rise in popularity of the female Gail, used as a short form of Abigail (Gail was also used for boys as a variant of Gale). In the US, despite the popularity of Gail as a girl’s name, male and female Gales existed together until the name disappeared from the charts for both sexes around the same time – 1969 for boys, and 1970 for girls.

In Australia, Gail was a popular girl’s name which peaked in the 1950s at #26, and I suspect for people born around that era, and perhaps a decade or so later, Gale would sound feminine to their ears. However, Gail hasn’t been on the charts since the 1990s, and Abby is the popular short form of Abigail today. If you look on the current Top 100 for the name that sounds most like Gale, it’s a male one – Gabriel.

Gale is an interesting name that by meanings, associations and sound, manages to present itself as both masculine and feminine, depending on how you think of it. I do like the idea of using it as a boy’s name, because English names are lacking male forms which have connotations of joy and happiness, compared to the numbers of female ones. Perhaps also because the Gale Crater is on the planet Mars, a name associated with masculinity for thousands of years.

However, this name is up for grabs by both genders, and does honour a great Australian star-gazer. If you can only think of this as meaning “a strong wind”, it would be on trend as one of the one-syllable nature name, which go so well in the middle position.

UPDATE: Blue Juniper from Baby Name Ponderings has reminded me that of course, Gale Hawthorne is one of the main characters in The Hunger Games trilogy. The best friend and hunting partner of protagonist Katniss Everdeen, Gale is played by Australian actor Liam Hemsworth in the film version. (Liam is the younger brother of Chris Hemsworth).

As Blue Juniper points out, this gives a current-day Gale much more of a masculine edge.