The other day, while reading a book titled “Callings,” I came across the following:
Being unwilling to bear the hurly-burly of faithfulness to our call, we court disaster—Latin for “against one’s stars”—and we end up agitated anyway. Although we have the choice not to follow a call, if we do not do so, the Sufi poet Kabir said, our lives will be infected with a kind of “weird failure.” We’ll feel alienated from ourselves, listless, and frustrated, and fitful with boredom, the common cold of the soul.
Being the “werd nerd” that I am, the armchair etymology in the first sentence of this excerpt caught my eye. It struck me as too perfect, too neat and tidy to be accurate, so I thought I’d check. Here’s what I found out.
Disaster, says the Oxford English Dictionary of Word Histories, is from the Italian word disastro, ‘ill-starred event,’ from dis- (expressing negation) and astro, ‘star’ from Latin astrum. Disastrous, from the same period, had the sense ‘ill-fated’ and is from French desastreux, from Italian disastroso (from disastro ‘disaster’).
“Aha,” I say! I didn’t think so! But before I get too full of myself, let’s get a second, third, and maybe fourth opinion, shall we?
The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins seems to be on board:
The word disaster has astrological connotations. It comes, perhaps, via French desastre, from Italian disastro, this was a back-formation from disastrato, literally ‘ill-starred,’ a compound adjective formed from the pejorative prefix dis- and astro ‘star,’ a descendant of Latin astrum ‘star.’ This in turn came from Greek astron ‘star,’ source of English astronomy and related to English star. So the underlying meaning of the word is “malevolent astral influence.’
So does the hefty and poorly named Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, which links disaster to star and traces star back to “Greek astron or, rather Latin astrum becomes Italian astro, with compound disastro (Latin dis- connoting deviation), an event not favorable to one’s stars….
Even the Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories supports this interpretation.
“[The word disaster] entered English from Middle French or Old Italian [and] owes its very existence to astrology. Old Italian astro is ‘star’; a disastro was due to the negative aspects of stellar influence.”
So, contrary to what Callings purports, disasters happen because of one’s stars, not because a person acted against them.
Okay, so that’s the skinny on the relationship between disaster and star, but from where did this idea that each of us has stars, lucky or otherwise, originate? To find out, I went straight to the symbol references on the LRL’s shelves, but they left me in the dark (get it?). So, I went with plan B and hit the dream dictionaries, which did offer a bit of illumination (sorry … kind of). According to these texts, stars have always been “guides” in one way or another, a concept which fits with this idea that they could be”ill-fated” or lead us astray and into … you guess it … disaster.
The Watkins Dream Dictionary:
Stars suggest guidance, not only in the navigational sense, but also in the form of the ineffable, given that the vast majority of stars exist outside … our human remit.
The Dream Dictionary from A to Z:
The planets, stars, and constellations have been considered good-luck omens from the earliest times. Dreaming of them represents your wish to guide your own fortune, hence ‘wishing upon a star.’ In general, they suggest exciting new opportunities as long as you possess the necessary self-belief.
Dream Dictionary (Crisp):
Stars [represent] intuitions about the cosmos; the perhaps almost unnoticeable promptings or motivations which occur through life leading us in a particular direction [or] destiny.