Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.

The world-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who died this week, had a wonderful way with words. Although many of those who bought his Brief History of Time may not have made it past the first few pages, his more general statements about life, the universe and everything have been widely admired and repeated.

As well as having a stellar scientific career that included giving his name to a type of electromagnetic radiation emitted by black holes, Hawking also possessed star quality in spades. This led to him becoming a star of a different kind, both as the subject of a major film and as an icon of popular culture, with appearances in The Simpsons, Futurama, Star Trek and even a Pink Floyd album.

The noun star has a number of other meanings, including a shape with five or more points or a sign or an object that resembles this, whether it is given to a child for good work or indicates the rank of a military officer. You can call someone a star for doing something as banal as bringing you a coffee or handing in a piece of work on time. One meaning of star that I’m sure Hawking would have had little time for is the plural stars, meaning both a power that some believe influences the future, and a horoscope. There are also a number of idiomatic phrases, which you can explore here.

Star comes from the Old English ‘steorra’, a word of Germanic origin related to Dutch ‘ster’ and German ‘Stern’. The Latin ‘stella’ gave us the adjective stellar.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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