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Betelgeuse, Betelgeux, Betelgeuze

Bordering the western edge of the glittering Milky Way, Orion's second-brightest star, Betelgeuse, is like a ruby set among a coal seam.

Astronomers know volumes about this compelling star. They know, for example, that it belongs to a class of elderly stars called red super-giants, which are approaching the end of their lives. As these stars die, their tenuous outer envelopes balloon out to enormous sizes. In the case of Betelgeuse, this is about 500 million miles across. Placed at the Sun's position, it would envelop all the inner planets and much of the asteroid belt; Jupiter would likely orbit within the star's outermost rarefied atmosphere.

Astronomers know Betelgeuse's surface temperature (about 2,100 kelvins, or 3,350 degrees Fahrenheit). They know its mass (20 times the Sun's mass), its luminosity (14,000 Suns), and its approximate distance (540 light-years). Observations of its light output show that it fluctuates noticeably in brightness (about 1 magnitude) and in size (as much as 170 million miles) every 5.8 years. Special imaging techniques have even imaged Betelgeuse's bloated surface, revealing that it is emblazoned with 'hot spots,' regions where the gas is brighter than its surroundings.

But there is still one searing question that has yet to be put to rest, one that plagues and bedevils both astronomers and the general public alike: how do you pronounce (and spell) 'Betelgeuse'?

It's a mouthful, no doubt about it. And it often elicits smiles and guffaws from the public when its name is mentioned at star parties. ('Beetle what?') Of the few astronomy guides that provide the phonetics for star names and constellations there seems no real consensus.

The Observer's Handbook, published by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, favors BET-el-jooz as the correct pronunciation. Martha Evans Martin, in her classic work The Friendly Stars, prefers BET-el-gerz. Richard Hinkley Allen in Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning, spells it Betelgeuze, which may be the source of Martin's pronunciation.

Allen, who is more concerned with astronomical etymology, avoids the pronunciation issue, but does present alternate spellings, these being Betelguese and Betelgeux.

Webster's lists it alternately as BET-l-jooz and BET-l-jrez (the re being pronounced like the French 'eu,' as in jeu d'esprit). I've heard more than a few erudite amateur astronomers variously pronounce it BET-el-geeze, BET-el-grez, and BET-el-gez. And, of course, we know what Hollywood did to it: BEETLE juice.

I suppose in some respects, the proper pronunciation of this star name is an academic issue that shouldn't much concern skywatchers. Besides, the etymon of Betelgeuse is the Arabic phrase Ibt al Jauzah, which means 'Armpit of the Central One.' Such a word, then, can't be considered elegant, no matter how you pronounce it. Therefore, I suggest you say it in such a way that doesn't set your teeth on edge or cause you to inadvertently spit in someone's eye. Just remember, it's a beautiful, old star; don't judge it by its pronunciation.

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