asterism

What’s the connection between the following lists?

A.
Diamond of Virgo
Summer Triangle
Great Square of Pegasus
Winter Hexagon
Sickle
Teapot
Terebellum
Saucepan
Coathanger
Kemble’s Cascade
B.
Cassius Ceramix
Goldenslumbus
Dubius Status
Overanxius
Autodidax
Valueaddedtax
Fulliautomatix
Justforkix
Cacofonix
Ptenisnet

Answer: list A is names of asterisms. List B is names from Asterix comics.

Now, it seems to me that asterism would be a perfectly suitable word for a name on the model of the names of Asterix characters – punning variants on forms in -ix for Gauls, -us for Romans, -a for females, -ax for Britons, -ic for Goths, and a few more (Ptenisnet is Egyptian). But the word asterism is already taken, so if you use it for these it’s your ass to risk.

Asterisk is, of course, the word on which Asterix is a pun. Its original meaning is “little star”; its root is the same Greek ast(e)r root that shows up in many words relating to stars. Asterism means “a grouping of stars that is not an officially recognized constellation” (constellation uses the Latin root relating to stars, stella, and in this case it seems the Latins own the private club). Each thing in list A is a grouping of stars into some discernible shape that, however, is not an offical constellation. (For some more on asterisms, including some others to look for, see Observing Asterisms.)

I don’t find anything especially starlike about the word asterism (whereas the k on asterisk looks like half an asterisk). But it nonetheless seems a word of some prettiness and quality, perhaps because it makes me think of asters in the lobby of a Waldorf-Astoria as viewed through a prism. When you say it, you stay to the front half of your mouth; after the initial open [æ], you can say it with your lips almost closed – and then, finally, fully closed. Perhaps as though you were eating Smarties.

But there is a closer link between asterisk and asterism (closer than the distance between k and m, even): there is a not-often-used character, a constellation of asterisks, three in a triangle, also called an asterism: ⁂. If you’ve ever seen one in a book, you may have wondered, “What’s it there for”? Well, it’s not “therefore”, for one thing – that’s three dots in an otherwise identical triangle, ∴. An asterism marks a subsection of a chapter, or calls attention to a particular passage.

Another asterisk shape that’s quite naturally attention-getting is the one you see in certain gems, for instance the Star of Bombay sapphire (I don’t mean the stars you see if you have too much Bombay Sapphire Gin). And that, too, is called an asterism.

I have also found a blog that is called Asterism – a blog on Iraq politics. Its slogan, explained at asterism.blogspot.com/2005/06/after-communism-and-capitalism-there.html, is “After communism and capitalism, there is asterism.” While this is a joke for Unicode geeks (since ⁂ can be found in the Unicode character set), it occurs to me that asterism could mean government by stars (Reagan and Schwarzenegger, anyone?). Or, on the other hand, it could mean government by politicasters – inferior versions of politicians. You see, aster is also a Latin suffix (unrelated) designating an inferior version or imitation: poetaster from poet, criticaster from critic, etc. Either way, in that kind of asterism, there would seem to be a mix-up about who is master.

But what if the star is me? Well, when I was a kid I certainly fancied myself being a hero on the model of Asterix. My friend Christa Bedwin has recently suggested, as a fun diversion, that everyone come up with their own Asterix names. So, perhaps, even if I don’t earn my place in the firmament, I can still be an asterism. Mine, obviously, would be Sesquiotix.

3 responses to “asterism

  1. Trav’ller came to riverside,
    Donkey too with obelisk;
    He did not dare to ford the tide,
    For he had an *.

  2. Pingback: quux | Sesquiotica

  3. Pingback: sparkler | Sesquiotica

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