By Mike Lynch
I’ve been into amateur astronomy ever since I was teenager which is more years ago than I care to share with you. No I don’t measure them in light years! Anyway one of the most challenging things for me is to not only remember but pronounce the traditional names of stars. There are some real tongue twisters out there and some star names have arguably multiple pronunciations.
One of the best example of this is the star Vega, the brightest star in the summer constellation Lyra. It’s a Arabic name which translates to English as falling eagle or falling vulture. I’ve also witnessed an argument between two adults at a star party. One guy insisted Vega should be pronounced Veega and the other sky insisted it should be pronounced Vayga such to 1970’s less than successful Chevrolet small car model.
Every single star you see in the Everett sky already has a name assigned to it, although most of them aren’t all that warm and fuzzy. You may have run across star maps with Greek letters next to the stars. This is the universally accepted astronomical star naming system referred to as the Bayer system, where stars are named according to their brightness in their respective constellations. The brightest star in a given constellation is referred to as the Alpha star, the second brightest Beta, the third brightest Gamma, and so on through the rest of the Greek alphabet. After all of the Greek letters are exhausted, regular letters and numbers are used.
There are major flaws in the Bayer system though because in many constellations the alpha star may not be the brightest star you can see with the naked eye in a given constellation, and the beta star may not be the second obviously brightest and so on. The difference between the brightness of stars is awfully hard to distinguish in most cases. There’s yet another way to scientifically name stars based on their position in the constellation but that’s complicated story for another day. Don’t wait up for though. It’s not exactly a fascinating read!
Most of the brighter stars are known more commonly by their age-old or traditional or “proper” names. These can be amusing, confusing, hard, or impossible to pronounce, don’t make sense, and as in the case of Vega have multiple traditional names, depending on your part of the world.
The names of most stars have ancient origins from a hodgepodge of languages. Some of the oldest known names have been passed down from the ancient Greeks. Many of the names, though, are Arabic, because in the middle ages the Arabs astronomers were very prolific at who cataloging many of the stars and constellations passed down from the ancient Greeks. Many of the Arabic names are still in use today, although they’ve been morphed and corrupted along way through faulty translations. All of these maladies have changed meanings or in some cases stripping them of all meaning or sense. I think that’s happened to Vega.
The absolutely worst traditional star names to pronounce are in the summer constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. One of them is the star Zubenelgenubi, pronounced zuba gela new bee, If that’s not a long enough of a star name for you, there’s a bright star next to it with a moniker of Zubeneschamali, pronounced zuba-nesh-a-molly. These are Arabic names that translate to the south claw and northern claw, respectively. Originally these stars marked the claws of the great constellation Scorpius the Scorpion, which is just to the lower left of the Z stars. In the days of the Roman Empire Julius Caesar hacked the claws off of Scorpius and made the Z stars the brightest of the new constellation Libra the Scales, which Caesar used as a celestial sign of Roman justice. If you can say the names of either of those Z stars ten times as fast as you can you are superhuman!
In our late winter skies right now there are a plethora of great star names, many of them in the bright constellation Orion the Hunter and the gang of constellations that surround the heavenly hunter. Some of the star names translate into body parts of the particular constellation they are members of. For example Rigel, pronounced Rye-jell, is the brightest star in Orion and translates from Arabic as “the foot” in English. Betelgeuse, pronounced Beetle —juice, is the second brightest star in Orion and is one of my favorite star names, translating roughly from Arabic to “armpit of the great one”!
Here are some of other bright star in the night sky now and what their names translate to English…
- Aldebaran (Arabic) in the constellation Taurus the Bull: “the follower” because it follows the bright Pleiades star cluster.
- Castor (Greek) in the constellation Gemini the Twins: “the beaver”
- Capella: (Latin) in the constellation Auriga the Chariot Driver: “the she goat”…where the chariot driver has a goat on his shoulder…something you see everyday!
- Pollux: (Latin) in the constellation Gemini the Twins: “much wine”
- Sirius: (Greek) in the constellation Canis Major the Big Dog: “the scorcher”
- Procyon: (Greek) in the constellation Canis Minor the Little Dog: “before the dog”…because it rises before the dog because it rises before Sirius the dog star
Make the Stars Your Old Friends!
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
I will read them!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net.
The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is: http://www.everettastro.org/