With the famous star Betelgeuse making the global news the past two months, the pronunciation issue is again arising. The world mostly says “Beetlejuice,” since the 1988 movie with Michael Keaton and Geena Davis was spelled and spoken that way. But that famous red supergiant’s preferred way is “BET’l-juice.” Since the other way is not strictly wrong, just keep saying it the way you’re used to.
We last got into this in 2010, and it’s an ongoing issue, since some have pet peeves about pronunciation. I’ll admit that it used to bother me when people said “tran-zee-ent” instead of the correct two-syllable “tran-zhent,” but a few dictionaries are now listing the new way as acceptable, so I’ve got to let that one go.
Not so with “con-SUM-it,” as in, “He’s a consummate guitarist.” Nearly everyone says “CON-sum-mit,” though that’s just plain wrong. But let’s stick with the sky, since it’s a pronunciational minefield.
You commonly hear a planet spoken as “you-RAY-nis,” and even Alex Trebek says it that way, though the only right way is “YOUR-in-us.” While language does evolve over time, Uranus can never mutate, since it’s a Greek and Roman god whose name has been fixed since antiquity. And you don’t want to anger the gods.
Remember the movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster? She contacted aliens from a famous star that in the movie was pronounced “VAY-ga.” Well, that star’s name was spelled Wega for centuries, and spoken as “WEE-ga,” meaning a falling eagle in Arabic. It evolved to be spelled Vega and spoken as “VEE-ga” in the 19th century. And it remains “VEE-ga” today. Those who Latinize it as “VAY-ga” are getting it wrong.
Constellations can be a challenge, too. Of the 88 patterns, about a dozen are hard to figure out, including Auriga, Boötes, Coma Berenices and Canes Venatici. Even a couple of zodiacal ones invite alternative pronunciations. Do you say “Gemin-eye” or “Gemin-ee”? (The former is almost universally preferred.) Plus, there are a few ancillary curveballs: The astronomical constellation is Scorpius, but the astrological sign is Scorpio. So, these mornings you can be a Scorpio observing Mars in Scorpius.
The largest asteroid, Ceres, is bewilderingly pronounced like the world “series.” The best tip is to know that, when star names were first translated into English from their original Arabic, Greek or Latin, they were spelled phonetically the way they should be pronounced. So, you’ll usually be correct when you say it the way it looks, with an “i” spoken like the letter “i” and so on. When you see Mira, say “M’EYE-ra,” not “MEE-ra.” Spica is “SPY-ka,” not “SPEE-ka.”
A recent challenge has arisen thanks to major observatories situated on Hawaiian mountaintops. Discoveries there sometimes result in astronomers giving the new object a Hawaiian name. But because that language is overwhelmingly vowel-based, the names do not resemble the familiar sounds heard in Latin languages, or even Arabic. The first-ever asteroid that came from beyond our own solar system was named Oumuamua in 2018, and pronounced “oh-MOO-ah-MOO-ah.”
But let’s not get too crazy. If you can handle all the planets and the major constellations, you need only worry about the stars. Can you correctly pronounce the ten brightest?
Alpha Centauri (ALF-uh cent-TOR-ee)
And three of these – Alpha Centauri, Canopus and Achernar – are Southern Hemisphere, so you won’t see them or have to say their names if you’re significantly north of the Equator. That leaves only seven above our homes. Not so hard.
Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous columns, click here. Check out Bob’s podcast, Astounding Universe, co-hosted by Pulse of the Planet’s Jim Metzner.