The last post quoted from the Breve diccionario de la lengua española, in which Guido Gómez de Silva wrote: “…la -r- del español estrella y del portugués estrela quizá se deba a una mezcla con astro ‘cuerpo celeste’.” Although estrella, however it evolved from Latin stella, is the common Spanish word for ‘star,’ the language also has that synonym mentioned in the quotation, astro, which resembles the aster that appeared two posts back. In fact, just as Latin borrowed aster from Greek, Latin also took astrum, the ancestor of Spanish astro, from the similar Greek astron ‘star,’ which we recognize as the first element in the abstract nouns astronomía/astronomy and astrología/astrology as well as their associated agent nouns astrónomo/astronomer and astrólogo/astrologer.

Speaking of astrology, the ancients believed in “lucky stars,” and according to that tradition if someone moves ‘away from a [lucky] star’ the result can be a desastre/disaster. On the astronomical side, Greek asterismos ‘constellation’ has become our asterismo*/asterism, one definition of which The American Heritage Dictionary gives as ‘a cluster of stars smaller than a constellation.’ Another definition it gives, this time not from the dark of night but from the ink-stained world of printing, is ‘three asterisks in a triangular formation used to call attention to a following passage.’ Finishing out an asterism of definitions, the dictionary has, from the world of mineralogy, ‘a six-rayed starlike figure optically produced in some crystal structures by reflected or transmitted light.’


* Another excuse for an asterisk: when I was searching the Internet to confirm that Spanish really does use the form asterismo, I came across more examples of the word in Italian than in Spanish, including this from the Italian Wikipedia: “In astronomia, un asterismo (o asterisma) è un qualunque gruppo di stelle visibile nel cielo notturno, riconoscibile dal resto per la sua particolare configurazione geometrica” (“In astronomy, an astersismo or asterisma is any group of stars visible in the night sky, distinguishable from the others by its particular geometric configuaration”). I also came across this mineralogical explanation of asterismo in Wikipedio: ‘Asterismo es optikala fenomeno : reflekto radianta di la lumo sur ula lapidi.” Understandable, but what is it? Do you recognize it? It’s a language, as you can see several times even in so short a passage, that makes all its adjectives end in -a and all its nouns end in -o. Only in an artificial language would that kind of absolute regularity be possible: this is Esperanto, whose name is not coincidentally only one letter—nay, only one voiced~devoiced distinction of a consonant—removed from the hopeful Spanish word esperando.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Dec 16, 2011 @ 19:22:43

    Which brings us to another bit of Texas linguistic trivia.

    As you surely know, the Houston major league baseball team is called the Astros. You may not know Houston’s nick-name for the team when it’s involved in one of its all-too-frequent losing seasons – the Disastros.

    The name was fan-generated and promoted through sports-talk radio stations. In light of what you’ve written above, what started as a casual bit of ridicule is actually rather delightful. It’s living language, at its best.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Dec 16, 2011 @ 19:44:58

      It’s great that you made the connection to the Astros. I never thought about mentioning the name of the team, but I should have. Thanks, too, for letting us know about the nickname Disastros, for which we can thank the lucky stars of living language.


  2. niasunset
    Dec 21, 2011 @ 07:34:56

    Yes, for the lucky stars of living language… Thank you dear Steve, for this enjoyable reading and informations. With my love, nia


  3. Steve Schwartzman
    Dec 21, 2011 @ 09:05:36

    You’re welcome, Nia.


  4. offshore bank account
    Dec 31, 2011 @ 07:06:34

    Thankyou for your reply to my addtional inquiry regarding the suffix -ity said to be derived from the Latin suffix -itas f, although it should also be possible to make abstract masculine nouns relating to a field of study not just feminine ones, so I was hoping to discover what the masculine suffix was.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jan 09, 2012 @ 13:55:17

      As I understand it, an abstract suffix like Latin -itas carries its own gender, which doesn’t change to match the gender of whatever it’s attached to. As a result, there is no masculine version of -itas or its Romance descendants.

      There are other suffixes that do change to match the gender of what they represent. One example is the Latin suffix of agency or profession: compare Latin actor ‘a man who acts’ with Latin actrix ‘a woman who acts’ (which ultimately became English actress).


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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