Sunday, 16 July 2017


Overheard a conversation about horoscopes the other day. In truth I only listened in the first place as I thought the topic had been astronomy.

With the conversation fading away, I began thinking of constellations and wondered where they got their names. Now while we only have twelve signs of the zodiac - Monty Python fans will argue there are thirteen, remember Derry and Toms? – but there are many more constellations and thus we shall take a look at where these names came from.

Andromeda – from the Greek it means ‘mindful of her husband’.
Aquarius – is Latin for ‘water carrier’.
Aquila – is the Latin word for ‘eagle’.
Ara – is Latin for ‘the altar’.
Aries – is the Latin for ‘ram’ and related to arietare ‘to butt’.
Auriga – another Latin term meaning ‘a charioteer’.
Bootes – is from the Greek meaning ‘herdsman’ or ‘ploughman’, but literally translating as ‘ox-driver’.
Camelopardalis – the Greek word for the ‘giraffe’, and derived from the name of the ‘camel’ and the ‘leopard’ as it has a long neck, like the camel, and spots, like the leopard.
Cancer – from the Greek karkinos which, like the modern word, has three meanings in ‘crab’ and ‘tumour’ as well as the name of the constellation. Clearly all three share a root, this being Proto-Indo-European qarq ‘to be hard’.
Canis Vernatici – the Latin for ‘hunting dogs’.
Capricornus – Latin again for ‘having horns like a goat’.
Cetus – Greek for ‘the whale’.
Chameleon – Greek for ‘lion on the ground’.
Columba – is the Latin for ‘dove’.
Coma Berenices – or ‘Berenice’s hair’, the Egptian queen’s name meaning ‘bringer of victory’.
Corvus – is the Latin word for ‘raven’.
Crater – in this context it is the Latin word for ‘cup;.
Cruz – features the Spanish word for ‘cross’.
Cygnus – is the Greek word for ‘swan’.
Delphinus – the Greek for ‘dolphin’.
Dorado – is Portuguese for ‘dolphinfish’.
Draco – the Latin word for ‘dragon’.
Equuleus – the Latin for ‘little horse’.
Fornax – is the Latin for ‘furnace’.
Gemini – is Latin for ‘twins’.
Grus – is Latin for ‘crane’.
Hercules – means ‘glory of Hera’, the name ‘Hera’ meaning ‘fame’.
Hydra – from the Greek for ‘water’.
Hydrus – is the Greek for ‘water serpent’.
Indus – is the Sanskrit word for ‘river’.
Lacerta – is the Latin word for ‘lizard’.
Leo – the Latin word for ‘lion’.
Leo Minor – and Latin for ‘small lion’.
Lepus – the Latin for ‘hare’.
Libra – Latin for ‘balance’ or ‘pair of scales’.
Lupus – is the Latin for ‘wolf’.
Lynx – is ultimately from Proto-Indo-European leuk ‘light’.
Lyra – the Latin for ‘lyre’.
Monoceros – the Greek word for ‘unicorn’.
Musca – the Latin for ‘fly’.
Octans – is from the name of the navigational instrument named from the Latin for ‘eighth part of a circle’.
Opiuchus – this means ‘the serpent-bearer’.
Orion – some sources suggest Akkadian for ‘the light of heaven’.
Pavo – features the Latin word for ‘peacock’.
Pegasus – thought to come from the Greek for ‘spring, well’ from whence Pegasus was born.
Perseus – some sources suggest a Pre-Greek origin meaning ‘waste, sack, destroy’.
Phoenix – perhaps originally referring to ‘Phoenician’ or ‘purple-red’.
Pictor – Latin for ‘painter’.
Pisces – is the Latin plural for ‘fish’.
Polaris – Latin for ‘the pole star’.
Puppis – literally ‘the poop deck’, as in the part of the ship.
Pyxis – is Latin for a ‘small medicinal box’.
Sagitta – the Latin word for ‘arrow’.
Sagittarius – is Latin for ‘archer’.
Scorpio – simply the Latin for ‘scorpion’.
Sculpta – is Latin for ‘sculptor’.
Serpens – is Greek for ‘the serpent’.
Sextans – is named for the astronomical sextant, its name meaning ‘one sixth part’.
Taurus – is Latin for ‘bull, bullock’.
Triangulum – is Latin for ‘triangle’.
Tucana – refers to the ‘toucan’ and comes from a Tupi word, they indigenous to the region now part of modern Brazil, tukana which is probably imitative of its call.
Ursa Major – as many will know this is also known as the Great Bear, although strictly the translation from Latin should be ‘the great she-bear’.
Ursa Minor – unsurprisingly this is Latin for ‘the lesser she-bear’.
Vela – named from the Latin for ‘sails’.
Virgo – is Latin for ‘the virgin’, a word which probably began referring to a plant or crop which had yet to produce seed in something akin to ‘young shoot’.
Volans – was originally known as Piscis Volans or ‘flying fish’.

Incidentally if you want to know the origin of Derry and Toms, they were a London department store who went out of business in 1971 and were named after founders Charles Derry and Joseph Toms.

For those wondering what happened to some of the omissions, those have never been understood and, etymologically speaking, are simply proper names.

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