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Arabic Star Names

As twilight fades out this evening, many prominent stars fade in. There’s Fomalhaut, the lonely “autumn star,” low in the south-southeast. The stars of the Summer Triangle — Deneb, Vega, and Altair — are pinned high in the sky. And the bright orange stars Aldebaran and Betelgeuse climb skyward later on.

The stars are different ages, sizes, and types. But one thing they have in common is their names: all of them were adopted from Arabic.

The names were passed down in a couple of ways. Some of them were translations from the “Almagest,” a star catalog compiled by Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy around the year 150. Ptolemy included each star’s position in a star picture, such as the mouth of the fish. Centuries later, Arab astronomers translated those descriptions. So the mouth of the fish became “fam al-hut” — a name known today as foh-mahl-HOT or foh-mah-LOW.

In the 10th century, Persian astronomer al-Sufi created his own star catalog. He updated the Almagest, and created many new names. Over the centuries, his work was translated into European languages, and the star names entered common usage.

So today, we gaze upon Deneb, adapted from a phrase meaning “the tail of the hen;” Vega, “the swooping eagle;” Altair, “the flying eagle;” Aldebaran, “the follower,” because it follows the Pleiades; Betelgeuse, “the shoulder of the giant;” and stars with many other beautiful and ancient names.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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