Understanding the Meaning of the Words in the Stars

Wednesday, June 83 min read

The study of the moon and planets is older than recorded history, but there has certainly been a popular resurgence in recent years. From astrology influencers like Chani Nicholas dominating social media feeds, to a first date asking for your “big three” — meaning your sun, moon, and rising signs — astrology and celestial influences have become hard to avoid. Living in such uncertain times, it’s nice to have an astrological roadmap, whether or not you put faith behind the forecast. Whether or not you follow your own horoscope, here are the stories behind some common celestial words.


A “gibbous” moon is one that appears more than half full in the sky and is appearing to grow fuller. The adjective appeared in English around the early 15th century, meaning “bulging, convex,” from the Latin gibbus, meaning “hunchbacked.” It was used  to describe the moon at this time, but was also used in English to describe a person with a hunched back, a spinal condition now known as “kyphosis.”


The term “selenography” arose in the 17th century to illustrate the science of the physical features of the moon and its geography. Like many celestial words, it has roots in Greek mythology — Selene was the Greek goddess of the moon, whose siblings were Helios, the god of the sun, and Eos, the goddess of dawn. The Greeks worshiped Selene at the full and new moons. The Romans worshiped Selene’s counterpart, Luna, which led to the family of “lunar” words.


A constellation is a configuration of stars that forms a recognizable shape, and, in astrology, this determines a person’s fate in life. It entered English through Anglo-French but is rooted in Latin, from com-, meaning “with” or “together,” and stella, meaning “star.” It refers to any of the 88 recognized configurations of stars, the first 48 of which appeared in a second century CE catalog put together by the Egyptian astronomer and mathematician Ptolomy. The other 40 were discovered over time.


Synastry is the concurrence of the stars’ influence upon two persons — in modern parlance, this might refer to a couple’s compatibility based on their astrological charts (the sun, moon, and rising signs). It appeared in English in the 17th century, coming from the Greek-derived Late Latin synastria, coming from the roots syn-, meaning “with,” “along with,” or “together,” astr-, meaning “star,” and -ia, meaning “state” or “condition.”


The zodiac describes the imaginary band in the heavens that encompasses the apparent paths of all the planets, divided into 12 constellations, or signs, that are each taken for astrological significance. It appeared in the 14th century, taken from the Old French zodiaque, which comes from the Latin zodiacus, from the Greek zodiakos, meaning literally “circle of little animals.” This was diminutive of zoion, meaning “animal,” which is why among the signs you’ll find a crab, a sea goat, and a bull, among others.


A horoscope is an astrological forecast, determined by a diagram of the relative positions of the sun, moon, planets, and constellations at a specific time — an individual's zodiac sign is determined by the horoscope at the time of their birth. It appeared in English in the 16th century, taken from the Latin horoscopus, which comes from the Greek hōroskopos. This can be broken down into hōra, referring to the time of day or a period of time, and skopos, which means “watcher” or “observer.”


Orbit refers to anything circling anything else, but when it comes to the stars, it most frequently refers to the elliptical path that one celestial body, such as the moon, follows as it circles another, such as the Earth. It comes from the medieval Latin orbita, meaning “track of a wheel” or “rut.” That word traces back to the more ancient Latin orbis, meaning “disk” or “circle.”

Featured image credit: bjdlzx/ iStock

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