"Hey, STELLLAAAA!!!" If you ever saw, and heard, Marlon Brando’s rendering of Stanley Kowalski’s lusty, howling cry for his wife Stella in the 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams’ "Streetcar Named Desire," then you’ve never forgotten it (Alec Baldwin’s 1995 Stanley was a shade less memorable). Though the fictional Stella had sadly ended up with a dark, thuggish guy, her literary creator had gifted her with a literally luminous name.
Williams’ dramas were steeped in the traditions of classical Greek tragedy and Greco-Roman mythology. He more than once quoted Aristotle’s theories of drama and a lead character in his early play "All Gaul Is Divided" was the Latin teacher Jenny Starling. Certainly he knew that his Stella’s name was taken directly from the Latin word for "star," stella, as doubtless was true of the writers responsible for the popular musical standard, "Stella by Starlight" (crooned by Frank Sinatra and so many others), and the screenplay for the 1944 Ray Milland horror film "The Uninvited" that inspired it.
As many as 100,000 of our English words are drawn from Latin, and stella has given us STELLar, for someone or something as brilliant as a star, STELLate (star-shaped), interSTELLAR (like Star Trek voyages "among the stars"), and even the names ESTELLe and ESTELLA (like ESTELLA Havisham Drummle in Dickens’ "Great Expectations").
Another derivative is of course CONSTELLation, a group of stars that form a pattern when viewed "together" (from Latin co-/col-/con-, as in COoperation/COLlaboration/CONnection). Most of the 88 constellation names are Latin and drawn from classical mythology, including the 12 signs of the zodiak, first catalogued by the Greek scientist Ptolemy in the second century A.D. and including representations of deities, animals, and inanimate objects. Virgo, for example, is the innocent "maiden" goddess Astraea, whose name meant "star" and who aptly took refuge in the heavens to escape the earth’s growing corruption. Leo is the Nemean "lion" strangled by the LEONine Hercules, who ever after wore its hide as a cloak. And Libra, source of our abbreviation LB(S) for "pound(s)," is the set of "weighing scales" balanced by Iustitia, the goddess of JUSTICe.
Latin stella was originally *STERla and related both to our own word STAR and to Greek and Latin ASTER, like the plant ASTER, with its STELLate flowers, and ASTERoid, a huge shooting STAR. The Romans applied the word not only to stars, but to planets and other heavenly bodies. They called the light radiating from the center of a gemstone stella too - like our star sapphire - and the starfish was known as stella marina (from mare, meaning "sea," source of MARiner, MARitime, and subMARine).
Another Greek word for star was astron, source of ASTRonaut (=star-sailor, as in NAUTical), ASTRonomy, and ASTRology. In antiquity the two star-sciences were not always distinguishable. An astrologus might be either a more science-minded ASTRonomer or a pseudo-scientific ASTRologer who predicted the outcome of human events based on the position and movement of stars and planets. ASTRology had its beginnings in the second millennium B.C. and has had plenty of true believers ever since. Chaucer’s 14th century "Treatise on the Astrolabe" displayed his knowledge of astrology, 16th-century Englishmen spoke of one’s fate being "in the stars," and Shakespeare termed Romeo and Juliet "star-crossed" lovers. The L.A. Times, Huffington Post and other major media outlets continue to publish daily horoscopes.
The Romans borrowed much from the Greeks, including the word astron, which they spelled astrum. Besides referring to stars, moon, planets and constellations, the astra (plural) were the heavens, the abode of the gods, and, figuratively, any lofty position. To achieve such a station in life, one must face challenges and surmount the occasional disASTER (literally an ill-STARred event), hence the adage per aspera (as in ASPERity) ad astra, "through hardships to the stars," motto of numerous military, educational and other organizations. Often reversed to ad astra per aspera, as in the Kansas state seal, the maxim doubtless inspired the title of Brad Pitt’s new sci-fi film, "Ad Astra," in theaters Sept. 20.
My wife Alice and I loved Brad (Alice especially admired his shirtless six-pack) in this summer’s "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," and I even thought he was an adequately heroic Achilles in the critically-panned "Troy" (2004). But for his stellar performances in "Streetcar," "The Wild One" (1953), "On the Waterfront" (1954), and of course as Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar" (1953) and Don (from Latin dominus/master) Vito Corleone in "The Godfather" (1972), I gotta say Brando remains my personal all-time favorite star.
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.