Three times in the past three days, reading different histories of Brazil, I came across the word metropolis referring either to Portugal or to one of the other European countries. For example, “The metropolises all tried–once again with differing degrees of success–to impose mercantilism on their American domains.” This didn’t make much sense, for I thought “metropolis” merely meant “big city” (which one?), and I vaguely recalled that a “metropolitan” (other than being a rather humorous excuse for a car) is some kind of an ecclesiastical regional authority. None of this was much help.
So when for the third time I came across this familiar word in unfamiliar usage I figured I had better look it up.
It turns out a metropolis is “the city or state of origin of a colony.” In Greek, μήτηρ (mētēr) = mother and πόλις (pólis) = city/town.
[Hats off again, to Wikipedia.]
Suddenly it all makes a lot more sense, but then another question arises. Namely, if the polis in “metropolis” meant “city,” then how do we end up using metro as an adjective for everything pertaining to urban life?
I may be able to go to bed now, but I doubt I’ll be able to sleep.
Any linguists are invited to opine.