I think on Mondays I’d like to talk about words.
And today, starry-eyed as I am, I’d like to discuss stars.
The word star is super interesting because it doesn’t come from Latin or Greek like the other 70% of English words. It comes from the Old English word steorra, which comes from an even earlier Proto-Germanic word sterzon, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European root ster. Isn’t it incredible how a word remained so static for over 7000 years of human history? How many words can boast that claim? Moreover, due to the sheer stability of the structure of the word, the English word “star” has many cousins in other languages that sound remarkably similar. Aster, stella, steren, estrella, stjerne, staar… the list goes on and on.
It’s theorized that Ishtar, Astarte, and Ashtoreth — all ancient goddesses of love, associated with the planet Venus — are potentially related to the word “star” due to the fact that Venus appears to be a wandering star (the Greek word planetes literally means “wanderer”). The movement of the planets, and therefore, the movement of the gods, was believed to determine the course of calamity and blessing. This is where we get the word disaster, literally meaning “bad star.”
Movie stars and rock stars and musical stars… all called such things because back in the 1820s, marketers would advertise by claiming the most famous members of touring theater and performance groups as stars, an idea that started to enter the popular consciousness only around this time. In history, reference to people as stars was commonly used to suggest their eternal fame or glory, as when Orion (of belt or hunting fame, depending on who you ask) was made a constellation in the heavens. Shakespeare and Chaucer used “star” to describe people as well. We use “stellar” to describe something good, but it was originally used to describe anything pertaining to stars. Strangely enough, the origin of that usage of “stellar” comes from the fact that we call these great people “stars,” which almost seems like an etymology that eats itself.
But I think what I find most interesting about the myriad uses of the word star and its conjugates is the idea that it all stems from one of the most widespread activities on the planet Earth: stargazing. Since time immemorial, single culture on every single continent has experienced night, and with it, the passing of the sun and the appearance of countless flecks of light speckling the sky, and all of them wondered what they were seeing. And so they stared, identifying ones that moved of their own whims, but noting the constancy of the stellar wallpaper.
To all people of the Earth, stars meant high and heavenly, almost divine, unsearchable. The way they moved, and the pattern to which they were arrayed could only be guessed at. And yet they chose to guess, eyes all around the world affixed on the same image of the boundless celestial ceiling, an unreachable backdrop upon which the history of mankind staged their performance.
They meant persistence. Every year, they would return to their positions, never having changed, only having revolved, as we perceived it. The very basis of the solar calendar, the pre-eminent calendar system of the ancient and modern day, was the Sun’s position relative to the stars. The Greek zodiac was developed to represent which constellation of the sky the Sun could be found in during that part of the year.
The stars never changed, no matter how far their explorers went. The North Star guided them by night as the Solar Star guided them by day. However, the further they went, the sooner they discovered there was a whole half of the sky that they had never seen. Two people from opposite poles would disagree about what the night sky looked like, but they were only ever looking at half of the full picture. Neither was ever wrong, unless they surmised that only their interpretation could have been correct.
I should note that as our observations of the stars have become keener and more refined, they are not as constant as they appear from afar. They change in luminosity — some grow weak and die with a puff, others expand and explode into a supernova. Others change places, dancing in a circular tango around one another. Some stars are so far away they can inform us of the history of the universe from ten billion years past due to the limitations on the propagation of light. They are born, they develop, they return to dust. It turns out they are only static in ignorance, but rather dynamic in truth. And now, our collective civilization has come to a point where it is possible to jettison man-made objects towards another star, to arrive there long after its creators have died. To reach for the stars could be more literal than poetic within our lifetimes.
Stars represent a lot… much more than what could be covered in a short post. They are symbolic of so many things that anyone from anywhere will immediately understand because of its pervasiveness in human experience, and I can’t help but see why the word has stayed the way it has for so long, and I can only guess that it will stay remarkably similar until the stars themselves begin to fade.