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July 06, 2018  |  Friday words #128  |  921 hit(s)

Happy belated birthdays, Canada and America!

Not long ago, Friend Heather posted something on Twitter that introduced me to the term asterism. I don’t consider myself unliterate in the basic vocabulary of science, so I was surprised I’d never learned this word before.

An asterism is a recognizable arrangement of stars in the sky, like the Big Dipper. Wait, you might be saying, isn’t that a constellation? Yes. Sort of. In vernacular, non-astronomic usage, a constellation is indeed any old recognizable pattern of stars that has a name (con: with, together; stella: star).[1]

Anyway, for purposes of formal astronomy, the list of constellations that had been identified over the millennia and around the world turned out not to be consistent or rigorous enough. So in 1922, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) sorted it all out and created a map that covered the whole sky, dividing it up into 88 official constellations.

The official map of constellations includes all the arrangements of stars that you see and that you can probably identify. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true: not all the patterns you know are a constellation, and might not even be within a single constellation. For example, the Big Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Major, but that constellation includes many other stars. Similarly, the Pleiades is just a “star cluster,” not technically a constellation. Or, as I now know, an asterism.

Origins. I've been watching a lot of baseball lately, because the Seattle Mariners have been doing pretty well. I therefore have heard the terms sacrifice fly and sacrifice bunt with some regularity. Which led me to wonder what the origins are of the term sacrifice.

A sacrifice is something you give up in exchange (hopefully) for something else of value. In baseball, you give up the batter, who's likely to get out, in exchange for advancing runners already on base. Originally, the sacrifice was less metaphorical: a sacrifice meant offering something (bread or a goat or a lamb or an ox) in a ritualistic way as "propitiation or homage" (OED). We've been using this word in English since the 1200s, when we got it from our then-new overlords, the Norman French.

Which gets us to the origins. The sacri- part is related to sacred; a sacrifice was originally a religious ritual. And the -fice part is Latin for "to make, do" (Spanish hacer) a term that has many relatives, like facile, factory, affect, gratify, and seriously, dozens more. So sacrifice is, like, doing the holy.

[1] I love this explanation in Wikipedia: “typically representing animals, mythological people or gods, mythological creatures, or manufactured devices.” “Manufactured devices,” isn’t that great? So, like, a plow. Which in turn leads to amusing speculation about what figures and “manufactured devices” we’d find in the sky these days. Maybe like this?

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