A couple of comments in this thread have drawn my attention to two of the most magnificent star names ever created, Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi. The former, the brightest star in the constellation Libra, is nonetheless called beta (β) Librae; its name is from Arabic الزُّبَانَى الشَّمَالِيّ‎ (az-zubānā š-šamāliyy), ‘the Northern Claw.’ The latter, symmetrically enough, is الزُّبَانَى الْجَنُوبِيّ‎ (az-zubānā l-janūbiyy), ‘the Southern Claw,’ and despite being called α Librae is the second-brightest star in the constellation. As to why a scale has claws, you can get the backstory in this Star Gazers video (if you’re in a rush [spoiler!]: they used to be part of Scorpius, the scorpion).


  1. At a guess, the ‘genubi’ bit is from a DMG transliteration, where ج <jiim> is written <ǧ>, with someone stripping the diacritic in an English-language publication thereafter, rather than transliterating to <j> as would be intuitive for English-speakers. But that doesn’t explain the <e>! Further research is needed.

  2. David Marjanović says

    No, no, star names are medieval! The g is to be read as generic early Romance, as in algebra. The e is in part necessary to give the g this reading, and in part represents the original [æ].

    Much more interesting is the sch, which otherwise hasn’t made it into medieval Latin, not even for transcriptions like this. I’d have expected ss.

  3. The story with the reversed Alpha and Beta is that when the Greek letters were assigned in the pre-telescopic age the best anyone could do was determine the approximate apparent brightness of the star. So stars in each constellation were placed into magnitude classes from 1 to 6, and all first-magnitude stars were lettered, then all second-magnitude stars, and so on. When the Greek alphabet ran out at Omega, the uppercase letter A followed, then the lowercase Latin alphabet from b to z, then the uppercase Latin alphabet from B to Z. So it was mere chance or whim if the actual brightest star wound up as Alpha or not.

    Variable stars without a stable brightness were assigned one-letter codes in order of discovery (variable stars with pre-existing names were not changed). These went R, S, …, Z, because no non-variable stars had reached the letter R yet. Alas, most constellations had more than 9 variables. So two-letter codes of the form RR, RS, RT, … RZ, SS, ST, …, SZ, TT, …, TZ, …, YY, YZ, ZZ, in which the second letter never alphabetically precedes the first, were employed. Alas, some constellations had more than 54 variables. So the system started over at AA, AB, …, AZ, BB, … BZ, CC, …, CZ, …, QQ, … QZ (omitting the letter J). Alas, there were still constellations with more than 334 variables. Only then was a sensible system employed: V335, V336, V337, ….

  4. All this leads to the most famous variable star having the highly peculiar name of “RR Lyrae.”

  5. So it was mere chance or whim if the actual brightest star wound up as Alpha or not.

    I think that in about 2/3 of the cases, the current brightest star in a given constellation is the one designated Alpha, so it’s not entirely “mere chance or whim”.
    (Note that this system dates to Bayer’s 1603 star atlas Urania, so it’s just barely “pre-telescopic”.)

    All this leads to the most famous variable star having the highly peculiar name of “RR Lyrae.”

    Although the other “most famous variable star” is Delta Cephei, which was bright enough to be have a Bayer designation long before it was recognized to be variable.

  6. Since I seem to have set this off, let me point out that Arabic star names entered Europe via Middle English. Hence sch, etc. Navigation, you know.

  7. David Marjanović says

    via Middle English

    That would explain the sch, but… weren’t the Arabic astronomic works translated directly into Latin, mostly in Spain and thereabouts?

  8. I believe that some of the Arabic works were first translated into Hebrew, by Jewish scholars in Moorish Spain, and only later into Latin. Once it became clear how much ancient writing was preserved in Arabic, direct translations into Latin began to appear.

  9. @David M: I’ve found this remarkably hard to find out via ordinary Google-fu, but the Alphonsine Tables are sometimes invoked. I retain the strong impression that there’s an English connection with our usual names, though.

  10. Since I seem to have set this off, let me point out that Arabic star names entered Europe via Middle English.

    No, as David Marjanović suggested, they entered Europe via Latin translations, primarily during the Twelfth Century Renaissance and mostly from Spain.

    This article by Paul Kunitzsch about the “extra” star catalogs in 15th Century printed editions of the Alfonsine Tables includes, from a 1492 edition printed in Venice, “Scheder” (now Schedar, aka Alpha Cassiopeia) and “Denebalchedi” (apparently Gamma Capricornis, which is usually known by a different Arabic name, Nashira). He concludes that this particular list was probably assembled at the beginning of the 15th Century by the “Vienna School”, founded by John of Gmunden, from older (as yet untraced) translations. In the Addendum, he notes that Beta Pegasi was referred to as “Scheat” in some of the same Vienna School manuscripts (where it was also spelled “sceath”, “sceach”, “scenath”, and “straach”).

    I suspect the reality is that Latin transliterations of Arabic names were not terribly consistent or stable, especially across several centuries and translators of different nationalities. A secondary factor might be the importance of German astronomers in the 15th Century (Regiomontanus being the most famous example), which might help explain the recurrence of “sch”.

  11. I should know by now not to state anything categorically on a language blog when the sentence should really begin, “I’m reasonably sure I read in some previous decade …”

  12. Tom Goodwillie says

    My daughter went to school with someone named Zubenelgenubi.

  13. As it happens (hail, Wikipedia) gamma Libra has also a “claw” name, Zubenelhakrabi, “the claws of the scorpion”.


  1. […] Hat notes the beauty of two stars’ Arabic names, Zubeneschamali and Zubenelgenubi, beta and alpha […]

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