Yes, the red monster star Betelgeuse. We joke as to whether it should sound like “beetle-juice.” I pronounce it ‘bet@ldZu:z (getting as near as I can to phonetic symbols, with @ for the shwa or neutral vowel and dZ for the consonant at both ends of judge).

Only recently did it occur to me that the more appropriate joke would be “beetroot-juice.” Beetroot is the reddest of the red. You have to be in awe of its staining-power. Make beetroot purée, even just slice a beetroot to go into the salad, and you’ll be lucky if that redness doesn’t spread all around the kitchen. It’s a dark purplish red – perhaps on the way toward infrared. The red of Betelgeuse and other stars we call red is ultra-feeble by comparison.

Beet, one of the eighty kinds of vegetable I once grew and painted in upper South Carolina


The name of Betelgeuse has nothing to do with beetles, beetroot, or juice. Like many or most of our star-names, it comes from an Arabic phrase that got progressively corrupted by European writers who passed it on to each other. Richard Hinckley Allen in his classic book on Star Names (1899, reprinted by Dover in 1963) confidently gives the original as Ibt al Jauzah, “Armpit of the Central One,” and then gives a string of those European variations – Bed Elgueze, Beit Algueze, Bet El-geuze, Beteigeuze, Betelguese, Betelgueze, Betelgeux, Beldengeuse, Bectelgeuze, Bedalgeuze, and Ied Algueuze.

That last, attributed by Allen to the scholar Edmund Chilmead (1610-1654) who quoted from the German orientalist Jakob Christmann (1554-1613), seems the furthest corrupted – but was nearest to the Arabic original. For that was Yad al-Jauza’. Yad means “hand” (in Hebrew as well as in Arabic). In Arabic script, which is continuous like our handwriting, four of the letters are mere upward kinks in the line, like little wavetops, distinguished only by the number of dots over or under them. The kink with one dot under it is b, the same with two dots under is y. Some early scholar reading an Arabic text saw only one dot where there were two, and so we get our family of names beginning with B. Otherwise we would be calling the great star Yetelgeuse.

And what was the Jauza’ of which this star was the hand? It has mystified writers, who have said that it meant the Giant, or the Twin, or just was an unexplained Bedouin name for Orion. The root meaning in Arabic does seem to be “central,” though as with families of words in all other languages other meanings have grown up, including ones to do with marriage. Jauza’ actually looks like a feminine superlative form, that is, meaning “most central.” But Betelgeuse, though in the middle of our winter sky, is not in the middle of Orion. The answer is that the ancient Arabic constellation Jauza’ probably included the stars of Gemini as well as Orion. Indeed it functioned, like our Gemini, as one of the signs of the zodiac; in a sense the central one, where the Sun is in the middle of the year (and where the midnight sky is in the middle of winter).

So that’s that. But we still rather miss that “armpit.” Betelgeuse really is in Orion’s armpit, unless you want to be more delicate and call it his shoulder; and ibt does mean “armpit.” It is delicately omitted from my Arabic dictionary, but some source that Allen read (he doesn’t seem to have understood Arabic himself) must have found the word and guessed it to be the explanation of the star’s name. The root with the “armpit” meaning (most Arabic words are based on three-consonant roots) is ‘-b-t. Another kind of dot comes into it: we should write a dot under the t, to show it is the “emphatic” kind of Arabic t, with the back of the tongue raised.

And to get away from linguistics, with which you may be bored, to a couple of bits of indelicacy:

I once knew a student (I won’t say of what ethnicity) whose short dense black hair caused him to be called by his rowdy friends “The Arab’s Armpit.”

And there was once, in pre-Islamic times, an Arabian poet, one of the kind known as brigand-poets, because they roamed around attacking other tribes, composing boastful verses, and coming to bad ends. His name was Thabit ibn Jabir (both the as should be long) but he was remembered under the nickname Ta’abbata Sharran: “he hid something evil in his armpit.” Ta’abbata is a verb derived, in one pf the complicated Arabic ways, from that armpit root. Sharr means “bad.” The legends about him have fun guessing what that evil thing was that he armpitted. The most obvious explanation was that he carried a concealed dagger, like Mack the Knife. A more imaginative tale was that he collected a lot of snakes in the desert, hid them in a basket under his armpit, and presented them suddenly to his mother.


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