From the September 2017 issue

Say Betelgeuse

How do you pronounce that star, that constellation, or that astronomer’s name?
By | Published: September 5, 2017 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
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.

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