The previous post dealt with a few descendants of Indo-European *ster-, a word that is little changed in English star. Latin added a suffix to the root to create *sterla, and after the r got assimilated to the following l, the result was stella. English makes the capitalized Stella or its variant Estella available as a name for a girl whose parents hope her life will turn out to be estelar/stellar, though that wasn’t the case—except by implication at the very end of the book—for the Estella of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. The form of the name Estella is close to the Spanish word for ‘star,’ estrella, and since the r was long gone from Classical Latin stella, readers of this column (as well as its writer) are entitled to wonder how an r got back into the Spanish descendant of the Latin noun. In Breve diccionario de la lengua española, Guido Gómez de Silva writes: “…la -r- del español estrella y del portugués estrela quizá se deba a una mezcla con astro ‘cuerpo celeste’.”

In any case, Latin stella appears as the root in the familiar term for ‘a group of stars forming a pattern,’ constelación/constellation. From the English noun comes the not-so-common verb constellate, which means, based on star patterns, ‘to unite in a cluster.’ But I like the definition that Noah Webster gave in 1828: ‘To join luster; to shine with united radiance or one general light.’ He added that the word is little used, maybe English speakers should thank their lucky stars that the verb has continued shining into the 21st century and should start using it more. French has the corresponding verb consteller, which Spanish borrowed as constelar. My old Pequeño Larousse Ilustrado says that the Spanish verb is a “galicismo por cubrir, llenar.” The past participle constelado serves more literally as an adjective meaning ‘estrellado, lleno de estrellas.’

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Just A Smidgen
    Dec 10, 2011 @ 12:42:20

    What a perfect word for the holiday season:) I know a little girl named Stella and love it…
    ps I dreamt a word last night, very strange but it was typed out and I think the letters were lighe or something and it was gaelic/celtic…. does anything come to mind?? if not, no prob:) I figured if anyone would have a clue, it would be you!


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Dec 10, 2011 @ 15:36:55

    I hadn’t thought about this “stellar” post in reference to the holiday season, but I welcome the synchronicity now that you point it out. I’m afraid I know almost nothing about the Celtic languages—wish I did know more—so I’m afraid your word doesn’t ring any bells.


  3. shoreacres
    Dec 11, 2011 @ 08:51:35

    Well, we mustn’t forget Stella Dallas! I wasn’t around for the novel or the film adaptations, but by the time I came along, it was possible to listen to her exploits on radio.

    I don’t believe I’ve ever come across “constellate”, but what a wonderful verb.
    2011 seemed to be my year for “revivify”. Perhaps “constellate” would be a good word for the New Year!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 11, 2011 @ 10:55:01

      Leave it to a Texan to remember Stella Dallas (somehow Stella Fort Worth and Stella El Paso don’t sound as good). And from Austin I approve your New Year’s resolution to revivify constellate.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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