Quaoar: An Artist’s Conception- Courtesy of NASA.
The astronomical world has its share of tongue twisting names. Much of this is no doubt due to the hodge-podge system that has been cobbled together over the ages… current convention gives us Roman planets, Greek constellations and Arabic star names. A student of Arabic myself, I can state that the language is tougher than particle physics to learn. You would have to include several guttural letters that English does not possess to even say some star names correctly. The difference between “Ear of Wheat” and “Nape of Goat” can be all in the inflection. Still, you don’t want to sound like George Bush saying “Nuc-ulear” at the next star party. At the risk of becoming a “Top-fill in the number” site, here’s the Astroguyz Top 12 astronomical names that we hear routinely slaughtered:
1. Uranus- (Say YOUR-in-iSS) This is probably every astronomers favorite beef. Sure, its funny to rhyme it with a body part. (“Hey Beavis, do you think men will ever land on Uranus?” or “I’ll just point my 8-inch SCT at Uranus…”) The “A” however, is flat. That won’t stop the scatological humor, I’m sure, but there it is.
2.Betelgeuse- (bEt’ljooz or betl-joez) Most Americans say “Beetlejuice” to rhyme with the movie. however, the name of this ruddy star in Orion is from the Arabic yad-al-jawza, or “the Central One.” etymology for the Arabic runs the gamut, and the “j” would be a hard guttural to translate. I’ve heard it argued that the proper pronunciation should be “Betelgauss” with a hard “g”!
3. Camelopardalis- (Say ke-mel-LO-pard-alis) What’s a camel-leopard? Answer: a giraffe. This rambling northern hemisphere constellation sounds cool sounded out; it can also be pronounced with the second “a” silent (ie- LO-pard-is)
4. Vulpecula- (Say vul-PECK-yoo-la) Don’t forget the name of “the Little Fox” when looking at the Dumbbell Nebula.
5. Auriga- (Say OR-I-gah) Funny story; I self educated into astronomy pretty much in a vacuum as a kid growing up in northern Maine. In this pre-Internet era, I devoured the two books on astronomy our town library had but alas, pronunciation didn’t come with them. I wound up saying “Argh-aira” for years. This drew a lot of blank stares in my adult star-party life!
6. Eris- (say E-ris) This newly designated “dwarf planet” seems to invite controversy. The aptly named goddess of discord may also be pronounced Ur-is, A-ris, or I-ris, depending on the reference. To add to the confusion, its moon is named Dysnomia. (Say Die-is-nom-E-ah) Or you could just say Xena and Gabrielle…
7. Zubenelgenubi- (say zoo-BEN-el-je-NEW-bee). The infamous “green star” in the constellation Libra, its a cool one to pull off. The name means “southern claw”.
8. Spica- (Say Spy-kah). Or is it Spick-ah? I’ve heard both when out observing. The name means “ear of corn”…rather cryptic. SPEE-kah is yet another variation.
9. Gegenschein- (Say gAy-guhn-shI-ne). Enough with the stars and constellations. This tongue twister comes to us from the German for “counter shine”. It’s the faint, ghostly counter glow to the sun. OK, I’ve never seen it either (or a picture, for that matter!) But when I do, I’ll be able to sound cool (Look, there’s the Gay-gun-shine!) and pronounce it!
Faculae, pictured above as bright spots. Courtesy of GSFC NASA.
10. Faculae- (Say Fak-ye-lie). What did you just tell us to do? In the realm of solar astronomy, these are bright spots of superheated gas in the photosphere rising up into the chromosphere. The singular is Facula. (rhymes with Dracula).
11. Analemma- (Say An-al-eM-ah). A better contender for the Uranus body part gag. This is the mysterious “figure 8″ thing we all noticed on the globe in school. Or I noticed, at least! When other guys were fascinated with cars, I was into telescopes. This is the yearly path the sun traces due to the Equation of Time.
12. Boötes- (Say Boh-oh-tEEs) Back to constellations: Another one that I routinely slaughtered as a kid. A mind can be a terrible thing to develop without help! See those two dots over the second “O”? That’s what is known as a “Diaeresis“, just like in the heavy metal band Mötorhead. Although they rock, I doubt they know that. It simply means that the syllable break comes between the two “o”s… trust me, it gets more complicated from there!
13. Quaoar- (Say KWAH-o-ar) Ok, this “top twelve” list is going into overtime. This one was specifically designed by the Astronomical Union to give folks a hard time. The name of the trans-Neptunian object is derived from the creation god of the Native American Tongva people. But you knew that. Thankfully, it wasn’t granted full planetary status, or we’d have to throw a “Q” in the My Very Excellent Mother… pneumonic. Hopefully, if menacing aliens invade Earth, they’ll come from there, or at least set up a summer home. Just think, an “Invaders from Quaoar!” headline has such a b-movie ring to it!
14. Syzygy- (Say Siz-eh-Gee) Probably the ultimate Scrabble word to land on a triple-letter word score, although you may have to use a blank tile or two. Impress your nerd friends with this one next eclipse with the condescending phrase: “Apparently there must be a syzygy tonite…” the term simply means a celestial alignment of the Earth, Sun and Moon. The term is in rare usage today and hearkens back to a time when the line between astronomy and astrology was a bit murky. And hey, its the last “s” in the dictionary!
So, you may ask, why bother? Well, it certainly validates your point when your confronted with a room full of arms-crossed-been-there-observed-that astronomy buffs ready to intellectually tear you apart. True, not all pronunciations are final or even universal; say something wrong enough, long enough, and it makes its way into general usage. For this piece alone I used Space.com, an excellent site from the Sierra College Astronomical Department, the Concise Encyclopedia of Astronomy, and the American Heritage Dictionary. And don’t forget glimpse(s) at the much maligned Wikipedia!
Doubtless, this list is not inclusive. I’d love to here any more favorite peeves, suggestions, threats, etc. readers may have. While pronunciation is rarely addressed in astronomy literature or forums, I find its a topic of secret interest with many. Give me enough, and we may consider giving this concept a routine spot. So kick back with a Rising Moon Ale, and debate the eternal question of Life, the Universe, and Everything: is it Sp-I-ka or Sp-EE-ka?