Posted by: Jack Henry | August 23, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Turn Around, Bright Eyes

This past Monday probably found some of you outside looking through special glasses, cardboard cutouts, or watching the eclipse unfold on television. I did not prepare an Editor’s Corner for the event, but one of your favorites, Richard Lederer did. Below is his language lesson inspired by the events in our sky.

Stages of the eclipse (from NASA)

A Constellation of Words Go Dancing With the Stars

In just two days, and for the first time in 99 years, the shadow of a total solar eclipse will arc across the United States from coast to coast. So today is a bright occasion to gaze upward at the heavenly words that illuminate our language.

Have you ever been curious about why the words lunatic and lunar begin with the same four letters? Etymology supplies the answer. Lunatic derives from luna, Latin for “moon,” which when it is full, is said to render us daft — moonstruck or loony.

We moon about somebody, we moonlight with a second job that we perform at night, and newlyweds go on honeymoons. The ancients customarily drank mead, or honey wine, for the first 30 days of marriage. Honeymoon merges honey, used figuratively to mean “love,” with moon, as a synonym for “month.”

Now let’s soar up, up and away to the stars, which eclipse the moon when it comes to the intensity of the light that shines upon English words. In an astronomical number of ways, the English language sees stars. We are so starstruck and starry eyed that we call our stage and screen and athletic celebrities stars. May this column be a lodestar (“way” + “star”) — a source of inspiration — in your life. A lodestar is used in navigation to show the way.

A Latin word for “star” is stella, whence the adjective stellar, the noun constellation and name Stella. The most famous use of the name is by Tennessee Williams in his 1947 play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in which Stanley Kowalski wails, “Stella! Stella!”

Another starry Latin word is astrum, a prolific root that gives us aster (a star-shaped flower), astrology (“star study”), astronomer (“star arranger”), asteroid (“star form”) and astronaut (“star sailor”). An asterisk is a symbol that looks like a “little star.” You may wish to dispute these celestial etymologies, but I think you’d be an asterisk it.

In William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Cassius warns Brutus that fate lies “not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Nevertheless, for centuries, people have believed that the stars and their heavenly positions govern events on earth. If a conjunction of the planets is not propitious, disaster will strike. Cobbled from the Latin dis (“bad, against”) and astrum, disaster literally means “against the stars” — ill-starred, star-crossed. In the ghostly opening scene of “Hamlet,” Horatio speaks of “stars with trains of fire and dews of blood, / Disasters in the sun.”

Astrologers used to study the stars to see how their coming together at a person’s birth would influence his or her future. “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are” goes the song. Desire is star-spun from the Latin de, “from,” + sidus, “star.” The idea is that we wish for and desire fortunate outcomes that stream from our lucky stars. In the same constellation is consider, which radiates from the Latin cum, “with” + sidera, “stars.” The first meaning of consider was “to examine stars together to gauge their effects on our fate.”

The influence of the stars reposes even within the word influence itself. Influence originally meant a flowing or streaming from the stars of an ethereal fluid that acted upon the character and destiny of human beings. The ancients believed that the influence of the stars generated the dog days, summer periods of triple h weather — hazy, hot and humid. In the days of the Romans, the six or eight hottest weeks of the summer, roughly July through the first half of August, were known colloquially as caniculares dies, or “days of the dog.” According to Roman lore, the dog star Sirius rose with and added its heat to the sun, making a hot time of the year even hotter.

Derived from Greek ekkentros, “out of the center,” from ek, “out of” + kentron, “center,” eccentric first appeared in English in 1551 as an astronomical term describing “a circle in which a heavenly body deviates from its center.” Modern-day astronomers still use eccentric in that way.

Greek also bequeaths us zodiakos, “circle of little animals.” Zodiac is the ancient Greek name for the heavenly belt of 12 signs believed to influence human behavior. The zo- in zodiac is related to the zo– in zoo and zoology — “life.”

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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