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Say Betelgeuse

How do you pronounce that star, that constellation, or that astronomer’s name?
bob_berman_2009
Betelgeuse is returning to the morning sky, but few can pronounce it. That’s because almost none of our friends know the stars and constellations, so we rarely hear them spoken. But even during star parties, mispronunciations abound.

Gibberish is nobody’s fault. In the case of Orion’s alpha star, the movie Beetlejuice, starring Michael Keaton, permanently implanted that pronunciation in everyone’s mind. Looking it up in the dictionary is of little help — even its meaning varies with each reference book. Grab the nearest dictionary, and you’ll find that the word Betelgeuse means “the shoulder of the giant,” “the armpit of the sheep,” “the House of the Twins,” or one of several other contradictory things.

The final judge? My favorite authority was the late George Davis of Buffalo, New York, an attorney, avid amateur astronomer, and noted Arabic scholar. Starting in the 1930s, he spent seven years researching star names, traveling to the East to seek original sources. Most star names come from Arabic, but that language, like all others, has changed over the centuries. That’s one reason why so many myths and false ideas appear in print. To get at the truth, Davis started with 2,000-year-old Arabic and then traced those star names to their roots from the even earlier Sumerian.

Davis managed to document that, yes, Vega is pronounced VEE-gah, which meant “the falling eagle.” As for Bet’l’jooz, the name derives from when the Sumerians saw the constellation of Orion not as a hunter, but as a sheep — so “the armpit of the sheep” is the correct meaning.

His research first appeared in 1944 in Popular Astronomy and was reprinted in 1971 by Sky Publishing Co. I bought it in 1972 and have treasured that yellowing 24-page booklet all these 45 years. Nowadays, you can find it online at http:// articles.adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1944PA.....52....8D.

Bottom line? Bet’l’jooz is indeed the most mispronounced bright star, but runners-up include Vega and Spica (say SPY-kuh, not SPEE-kah).
ASYBB1017_01
A red supergiant star, Betelgeuse (or Bet’l’jooz) stands out as the shoulder of Orion the Hunter. Its name, however, is derived from a time when the Sumerians envisioned its constellation as a sheep.
© Peresanz | Dreamstime.com
Constellations can be troublesome, too. Seven years ago, our own Michael Bakich created an extremely helpful online pronunciation guide, though I regard cah-RYE-nuh as the preferred way to pronounce the Southern constellation sometimes listed as cah-REE-nuh.

But it’s the Latin genitive form that really throws people. Stars within constellations are labeled using the Latin genitive form of the constellation, denoting possession or association. Vega is also known as Alpha (α) Lyrae; add an “e” to the constellation of Lyra to form the genitive. But how to say it? This one’s simple: You change LY-ruh to LY-ree.

The genitive often seems easy, like with Betelgeuse’s designation as Alpha (α) Orionis. But should you simply say “Orion” the normal way and then add an “is” sound? No! You must change every syllable! Betelgeuse is pronounced (Alpha) oh-ree-OH-nis.

Now go ahead and learn the genitives of all 88 constellations! Those with two words, like Ursa Major, have both changed, making it UR-see mah-JOR-is. Fortunately, no one can force you to memorize all this. I obsessively learned them in the ’70s when I started lecturing, to avoid the embarrassment of saying things wrong. But there are issues even today, because the British and Americans often utter genitives (and other things) differently, like with antennae pronounced an-TEN-ee versus an-TEN-nay versus an-TEN-nye. So if you’d like to discuss the amazing irregular supernova and nebula named Eta Carinae, you could say either cah-REE-nay or cah-RYE-nee, though I prefer the latter.

Even the Greek letters are controversial. Probably 20 percent of the letters are ambiguous. Returning to Eta Carinae, you can say EE-tuh or AY-tuh. When observing the deep red star Mu (μ) Cephei, do you say “Moo” or “Myoo”? I prefer ZAY-tuh and THAY-tuh, but some pronounce them ZEE-tuh and THEE-tuh. Happily, as with Jupiter’s moon Io (say either EYE-oh or EE-oh), increasing numbers of celestial objects are now greenlighted for multiple “correct” pronunciations. A few modern dictionaries even obscenely allow yor-AY-nis for the seventh planet.

I rarely correct people because it’s obnoxious, and I want to be liked. Also, many mispronunciations ultimately prove transient: If you wait long enough, your articulation may eventually be deemed OK. Even transient, which everyone started pronouncing with three syllables in the 1970s, and which still bugs me because it classically has two (TRAN-shent), is now sometimes listed as acceptable with three.

Maybe all this is an argument for solitary observing. Then any heated dispute would occur only in your mind — which is never a good sign.
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