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    Re: Star name change
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2005 Apr 8, 18:14 EDT

    Last week, Zvi Doron asked:
    "WWII texts refer  to the trailing star of the big dipper as Benetnasch,
    whilst present day  texts call it Alkaid. As star names have been around for
    many hundreds of  years, I wondered who changed the name of this star, when
    and  why?"
    It's entirely up to the editors and authors of the books in  question since
    "common names" for stars are not official and there is no  'authority' that
    signs off on them (the International Astronomical Union has  never bothered to
    make any common star names official... at best, they  "recommend" consulting the
    Yale Bright Star Catalog for common names). Since  it's up to the
    editor/author, I could publish a star atlas of my own and rename  Eta Ursae Majoris (the
    Bayer name for "Alkaid") as "Freedom Fries" and  technically no one could say
    that that's an incorrect name. They could, of  course, say that I'm a goofball
    and refuse to buy my book... the power of the  marketplace at work. Adam
    Smith would be pleased (maybe we should name a star  after him... ).
    So which editors chose Alkaid over  Benetnasch? And why? I don't have any
    answers. Peter Fogg has already explained  that they're both parts of a longer
    original name. But I do have some data  points to bring to bear.
    First, many of the common star names in  use today owe their continuing
    popularity directly to the editors of "The  Nautical Almanac" and 20th century
    sight reduction tables with specific  "navigational stars" listed in them.
    Astronomers are much less inclined to use  common names. Names like Gacrux and Becrux
    are clearly just modern "coinages"  but they're with us because it was felt
    that the list of navigational stars  would look best without Greek letters in
    it. The almanac editors dug up the  (very silly) mid-19th century coinages for
    Gamma Crucis and Beta Crucis, and we  use them today right alongside names of
    ancient standing. This example (apart  from the modern origin) may apply to
    Alkaid/Benetnasch, too. If we want to  understand where Benetnasch has gone, we
    maybe should look to the Nautical  Almanacs for clues.
    In the American Nautical Almanacs from the late  19th century relatively
    fewer stars are given common names than today. Eta UMa  is listed as just that
    --no common name at all-- in 1889 and 1903 (two dates I  checked). Meanwhile, in
    Norie's Navigation (British) for 1902, we find the name  Benetnasch for this
    star. Now jump ahead to 1919. In the American Nautical  Almanac, which became
    an independent publication (see note below) in 1916, Eta  UMa is called Alkaid
    and continues as Alkaid in every American publication I was  able to check
    through the 1930s, 40s, 50s. In the British "Nautical Almanac,  Abridged for the
    Use of Seamen" it is still Benetnasch in 1919. Different names  on different
    sides of the Atlantic. Then in a 1945 American Air Almanac, there's  a very
    interesting small table entitled "Stars, Cross Reference". It lists  alternative
    names of stars under the headings A.A.A. and B.A.A. (two other  columns also,
    but they're basically abbreviations). I can't find a confirmation,  but it
    seems almost certain that these refer to "American Air Almanac" and  "British Air
    Almanac". And sure enough, the star is "Alkaid" under A.A.A. and
    "Benetnasch" under B.A.A. The other pairs that differ are Adhara/Adara,  Alnilam/Anilam,
    Betelgeux/Betelgeuse, Deneb Kaitos/Diphda, El Nath/Nath,  Marfak/Mirfak,
    Rasalague/Ras Alhague, Rigil Kent./Rigel Kent., Schedir/Schedar.  Also, the stars
    we know as Avior, Wezen, Alhena, Alnitak are listed in the  American Air
    Almanac by Bayer names (e.g. Zeta Orionis for Alnitak) and no  common names. I don't
    have anything after that date for Britain right now. When  did the British
    Nautical Almanac editors adopt the American prefered name for  Alkaid? Did they
    make this choice as a compromise for jointly prepared  publications? Clearly
    by 1958, when the publications were merged, some  compromises were made. Anyone
    have any data to add??
    In Reed's  Nautical Almanac from 1973, there is a nice star chart which looks
    old to me.  That is, I suspect that it's something that's been in this
    almanac for decades.  In big bold letters at the top of the chart, it says "Pole -
    Plough - Dubhe -  Benetnasch - Kochab". But in small print next to the star on
    the chart, it says  "Alkaid [Benetnasch]".
    Incidentally, a couple of years ago on  Seesat-L (the visual satellite
    observers list --another fun hobby for  skywatchers, by the way) someone from the UK
    mentioned observing a satellite  near Benetnasch and an experienced American
    observer replied that he had never  heard this name in forty years of
    Also, on a related  note, since star names are not official, their
    pronunciations aren't either.  Years ago, astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts who were
    easily embarassed or  otherwise took themselves seriously used to come up
    with awkward pronunciations  of the name "Betelgeuse", which is almost
    universally pronounced beetle-juice  today. I knew several people c.1980 who said
    Bet-ul-zherz in a sort of  francophone manner. Another said Bet-ul-zhe because of
    the old American  spelling. And when did the pronunciation become rock-solid and
    firmly settled as  something that sounds like a brand of bug-juice?? That's
    easy... 1988. When they  made the movie "Beetlejuice".  :-) It's almost
    universally pronounced that  way now. Finally, I used to ask planetarium audiences
    which name they found  funnier: Rasalhague (Ras-ul-hay-gwee)?? Or Alpha Ophiuchi
    (Al-fu O-fee-yoo-kee)?  Same star -- two funny names.
    (note from above: when I say  "independent", I mean that the American
    Nautical Almanac was published and  edited separately from its bigger,
    astronomically-oriented cousin, The American  Ephemeris & Nautical Almanac starting with
    that year. Previous to this date,  the AmNA was just a soft-cover subset of the
    bigger hardcover  book)

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