Star Names

A Brief List of Star Name Derivations and Pronunciations


Bright stars are often known by many different names. For instance, the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, is also known as alpha Canis Majoris and 9 Canis Majoris. The first designation, using the Greek letter alpha, is called the Bayer designation and represents its primary placement (not always its brightness) in the constellation of Canis Major. The second designation, with the number 9, is called the Flamsteed designation, after the English astronomer whose star catalogue gave rise to the stellar numbering. The stars in each constellation are numbered in increasing order from west to east.

Many stars have Bayer or Flamsteed designations, although in the larger scheme of things, even those stars are considered amongst the brightest the night sky has to offer. But generally speaking, only the very brightest (or most notable for other reasons) have proper names, such as Sirius or Betelgeuse.

On the star names page is a listing of about 250 of these stars names, given with one other designation (usually Bayer, but sometimes Flamsteed or some other designation), as well as a pronunciation and short derivation. The star names are given in order first of their constellation, and then in order of Bayer name within that constellation. Thus, any star in Andromeda appears before any star in Perseus, and alpha Andromedae appears before gamma Andromedae.


The star names, pronunciations, and derivations draw chiefly from Paul Kunitzsch and Tim Smart's book on star names. Kunitzsch's work (for it is he who is responsible for the derivations) largely supersedes the classic work of Allen, which has been heavily consulted ever since it was first published around the turn of the 20th century, but suffers from Allen's lack of expertise with early Arabic. As a result, significant errors abound in the derivations—errors which unfortunately have been propagated from reference to reference.

An example is the name Betelgeuse for alpha Orionis, which Allen attributes to a supposed Arabic form, bat al-jauza, which he claims means "armpit of the giant." In fact, such a form would be ungrammatical; the proper form of bat should be ibt. Furthermore, the name al-jauza does not mean "the giant," although another Arabic name used for the constellation, al-jabbar, does indeed mean "the giant." Finally, there's not even a 'b' in the original first syllable; it's really a 'y', mistransliterated. See the star names page for the proper derivation of this very well-known star name.

The derivations given in Kunitzsch's book have been greatly abbreviated in my list. The names of many stars were borrowed or improperly transferred from those of other stars; this has not been indicated in the abbreviated derivations. The interested reader is directed to Kunitzsch's book (citation forthcoming) for more information about some of the odd derivations in the list.

Allen's book is perhaps more reliable when it comes to pronunciations, although here too Kunitzsch is recognized as the authority. Kunitzsch and Smart often give two or more pronunciations, one of which is "popular" (but possibly historically inaccurate), and another which is more historically "accurate." In some cases, the star name is not sufficiently well known for a popular pronunciation to have developed; in others, the name has been corrupted so far that the historically accurate pronunciation is a compromise between the modern spelling and the original form.

The pronunciations I give are generally the "accurate" ones; in the case of the more well-known stars, I also include some popular pronunciation in parentheses. Generally speaking, these popular pronunciations are not the ones in Kunitzsch and Smart's book.

It took considerable time to decide how to express the pronunciations. For instance, the name Kentaurus is rendered phonetically as kent-OW-russ. Ordinarily, the "t" should go with the second syllable, giving ken-TOW-russ. But "tow" is a common English word, with two pronunciations, of which the one rhyming with "go" is by far the most common. In contrast, "ow" only rhymes with "pow," which is the pronunciation Kunitzsch gives, and that explains why I've broken up the phonetic spelling the way I have.

I have tried, whenever possible, to produce the proper pronunciation without introducing ambiguity. Sometimes, this is not possible, because the English language (I've geared my phonetic spellings around English speakers) does not provide a way to express that sound. This has been complicated by my avoidance of the silent "e" in the phonetic spellings. Thus, for example, the last syllable of Antares, which might otherwise be rendered race, is instead given as rayss—the double ss indicating that it sounds as an unvoiced "s" (instead of the voiced "z" which is the usual sound at the end of the word "rays").

Copyright (c) 2004 Brian Tung