Today in Geek History: The birth of 'Live long and prosper'

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Dec 15, 2012, 11:18 AM EST

How many times has Leonard Nimoy had the Vulcan salute flashed in front of his face by now? How many times has he heard "Live long and prosper" from Trekkies and casual fans alike? It's probably best to avoid thinking about it. Your brain might melt.

Nimoy probably never guessed that one brief gesture and phrase at the end of a Star Trek episode filled with other noteworthy incidents would become one of the defining moments of his career, but the Vulcan salute is one of those things he'll never escape. It debuted 44 years ago today on the 30th episode of the original series, "Amok Time," the only episode from the series to take place on the planet Vulcan.

If you're not familiar with the episode (or just don't remember), it's the one in which Spock takes ill and reveals to the Enterprise crew that he must return to his home planet to get freaky with the Vulcan mating ritual, "Pon farr," or he'll die. Kirk disobeys Starfleet orders to get his friend home in time to complete the ritual, one thing leads to another, and suddenly Kirk and Spock are in a fight to the death (because that's what women do to shipmates, I guess).

Near the end of the episode, Spock says goodbye to the Vulcan official T'Pau (played by Celia Lovsky) by raising his hand in the now-classic V-shaped salute and saying "Live long, T'Pau, and prosper." She returns the gesture, and Spock beams up.

The phrase "Live long and prosper" was created by science fiction novelist and short story writer Theodore Sturgeon (best known for his novel More Than Human), who wrote the episode. Nimoy himself created the gesture based on a childhood experience in a Jewish temple, as he explained in an L.A. Times interview in 2009:

"'A group of men at this particular synagogue, the kohen, members of a priestly tribe, stood up in front of the congregation to bless everyone,' Nimoy remembered. 'They were very loud, ecstatic, almost like at a revival meeting, and they were shouting this prayer in Hebrew, 'May the Lord bless and keep you...' but I have no idea at the time what they're saying. My father said 'Don't look' and everybody's got their heads covered with their prayer shawls or their hands over their eyes. And I see these guys with their heads covered with their shawls but out from underneath they have their hands up. It was chilling, spooky and cool.'

Their hands, of course, were stretched out in the gesture that would be the Vulcan salute. 'It's the shape of the letter Shin in Hebrew, which is the first letter in the word Shaddai, a word for God, and shalom, the word for peace. It came back to me years later when he made a 'Star Trek' episode "Amok Time" when Spock returns to his home planet for the first time and we see him interact with Vulcans.'"

The Vulcan salute is now an indispensable pop culture staple celebrated by nerds the world over, but we all know that something more important sprang from this episode: the name T'Pau, which was taken by an English pop group in the 1980s famous for their one major hit, "Heart and Soul."