Pronunciations, Derivations, and Meanings of a Selected List of Star Names
by George A. Davis, Jr.


Book Review by Joe Orman

[Originally published in the newsletter of the East Valley Astronomy Club, June 2001]

Next time you go to a star party and point out a few stars, wouldn't you like to make sure you're pronouncing them correctly? If so, this booklet, a reprint of a 1944 article from Popular Astronomy, is for you. The pronunciation is given for the names of dozens of the brighter stars, along with the Arabic, Persian, Greek, or Latin roots. And you will be on firm scholarly ground; the author was "an expert on ancient constellations and their mythology" and states in his introduction "... the entire paper is the result of original research, and every statement that I have made is based on documents which would be received as legal evidence in any court of competent jurisdiction." Unfortunately, a pronunciation key is not included, so I've had to interpret the diacritical marks to generate the following phonetic equivalents.

I found this booklet to be informative and humbling at the same time; I learned that I've been mispronouncing the names of several stars! For instance, Altair, from the Arabic for "the flying eagle or vulture," is pronounced Al-TAIR. Similarly, Vega (VEE-gah) comes from the Arabic for "the falling eagle or vulture." Merope, referring to both a blue star in the Pleiades and the beautiful nebulosity around it, is pronounced MARE-oh-pea. I knew that Antares is from the Greek for "the rival of Mars," but didn't know it's pronounced ant-AIR-ease. And I was proud of the fact that I could name all three stars in Orion's belt -- until I learned that I've been mispronouncing them! For the record, east to west they're Alnitak (Al-NYE-tack), Alnilam (Al-NYE-lamb), and Mintaka (MIN-tah-kah).

On the plus side, I was reassured to learn I've been pronouncing most of the names correctly all along, for example Rigel (RYE-jell), Polaris (poe-LAIR-iss), Spica (SPY-kuh), and Regulus (REG-yoo-luss). But when it comes to the red giant Betelgeuse, I purposely risk the wrath of the pronunciation police: "Beetle Juice" may not be quite correct, but it's just so much fun to say! And I really don't need to know that the name is from the Arabic for "armpit of the white-belted sheep" -- a little knowledge is impressive, but let's not get carried away!

Any astronomer knows that looking out into space is looking back in time, due to the finite speed of light. But there is another sense in which this is true: when we look at the stars and speak their names, we get a fascinating glimpse of the ancient cultures who first gave them those names.

Revised: June 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Joe Orman
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