Constellation Names and Abbreviations

The Farnese Atlas, sculpted in late Roman times, is the first known depiction of the classical constellations. Click above for a larger image.
Gerry Picus

Most of the well-known constellations date back to ancient Greece or earlier, but the precise list remained somewhat fuzzy until the early 20th century. Then, in a series of resolutions from 1922 to 1930, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) divided the celestial sphere into 88 precisely defined constellations with official spellings and abbreviations.

Every constellation name has two forms: the nominative, for use when you're talking about the constellation itself, and the genitive, or possessive, which is used in star names. For instance, Hamal, the brightest star in the constellation Aries (nominative form), is also called Alpha Arietis (genitive form), meaning literally "the Alpha of Aries." When space is at a premium, this is written α Ari, using the lower-case Greek letter alpha and the abbreviation for Aries.

The table below lists all 88 constellations in alphabetical order. If you don't want to scroll through the whole thing, click on the appropriate abbreviation in the index table. Click on the pronunciations in the main table to hear what they really sound like. After the table, there are extended discussions of the constellations' history, their names and meanings, and their pronunciations.

The Constellations
Abbr.
 
 
Nominative
Genitive
English Nickname
Nominative Pronunciation
Genitive Pronunciation
Comments
And
 
 
Andromeda
Andromedae
the Chained Maiden
an-DRAH-mih-duh
an-DRAH-mih-dee

ancient, daughter of Cepheus
Ant
 
 
Antlia
Antliae
the Air Pump
ANT-lee-uh
ANT-lee-ee

18th century
Aps
 
 
Apus
Apodis
the Bird of Paradise
APE-us, APP-us
APP-oh-diss

16th century
Aqr
 
 
Aquarius
Aquarii
the Water Bearer
uh-QUAIR-ee-us
uh-QUAIR-ee-eye

ancient, in zodiac
Aql
 
 
Aquila
Aquilae
the Eagle
ACK-will-uh, uh-QUILL-uh
ACK-will-ee, uh-QUILL-ee

ancient
Ara
 
 
Ara
Arae
the Altar
AIR-uh, AR-uh
AIR-ee, AR-ee

southernmost ancient constellation
Ari
 
 
Aries
Arietis
the Ram
AIR-eez, AIR-ee-yeez
uh-RYE-ih-tiss

ancient, in zodiac
Aur
 
 
Auriga
Aurigae
the Charioteer
aw-RYE-guh
aw-RYE-ghee

ancient
Boo
 
 
Boötes
Boötis
the Herdsman
bo-OH-teez
bo-OH-tiss

ancient, also called Bear Watcher
Cae
 
 
Caelum
Caeli
the Engraving Tool
SEE-lum
SEE-lye

18th century
Cam
 
 
Camelopardalis
Camelopardalis
the Giraffe
cuh-MEL-oh-PAR-duh-liss
cuh-MEL-oh-PAR-duh-liss

17th century
Cnc
 
 
Cancer
Cancri
the Crab
CAN-ser
CANG-cry

ancient, in zodiac
CVn
 
 
Canes Venatici
Canum Venaticorum
the Hunting Dogs
CANE-eez (CAN-eez) ve-NAT-iss-eye
CANE-um (CAN-um) ve-nat-ih-COR-um

17th century
CMa
 
 
Canis Major
Canis Majoris
the Great Dog
CANE-iss (CAN-iss) MAY-jer
CANE-iss (CAN-iss) muh-JOR-iss

ancient
CMi
 
 
Canis Minor
Canis Minoris
the Lesser Dog
CANE-iss (CAN-iss) MY-ner
CANE-iss (CAN-iss) mih-NOR-iss

ancient
Cap
 
 
Capricornus
Capricorni
the Sea Goat
CAP-rih-CORN-us
CAP-rih-CORN-eye

ancient, in zodiac, fish-goat hybrid
Car
 
 
Carina
Carinae
the Keel
cuh-RYE-nuh, cuh-REE-nuh
cuh-RYE-nee, cuh-REE-nee

of the ship Argo1
Cas
 
 
Cassiopeia
Cassiopeiae
the Seated Queen
CASS-ee-uh-PEE-uh
CASS-ee-uh-PEE-ye

ancient, Andromeda's mother
Cen
 
 
Centaurus
Centauri
the Centaur
sen-TOR-us
sen-TOR-eye

ancient, far-southern
Cep
 
 
Cepheus
Cephei
the King
SEE-fyoos, SEE-fee-us, SEF-ee-us
SEE-fee-eye, SEF-ee-eye

ancient, Andromeda's father
Cet
 
 
Cetus
Ceti
the Sea Monster
SEE-tus
SEE-tie

ancient, Andromeda's assailant
Cha
 
 
Chamaeleon
Chamaeleontis
the Chameleon
cuh-MEAL-yun, cuh-MEAL-ee-un
cuh-MEAL-ee-ON-tiss

16th century
Cir
 
 
Circinus
Circini
the Drafting Compass
SER-sin-us
SER-sin-eye

18th century
Col
 
 
Columba
Columbae
the Dove
cuh-LUM-buh
cuh-LUM-bee

16th century, Noah's dove
Com
 
 
Coma Berenices
Comae Berenices
Berenice's Hair
COE-muh BER-uh-NICE-eez
COE-mee BER-uh-NICE-eez

Queen of Egypt c. 240 B.C.
CrA
 
 
Corona Australis2
Coronae Australis
the Southern Crown
cuh-ROE-nuh aw-STRAL-iss3
cuh-ROE-nee aw-STRAL-iss3
ancient, far-southern
CrB
 
 
Corona Borealis
Coronae Borealis
the Northern Crown
cuh-ROE-nuh bor-ee-AL-iss3
cuh-ROE-nee bor-ee-AL-iss3
ancient
Crv
 
 
Corvus
Corvi
the Crow
COR-vus
COR-vye

ancient
Crt
 
 
Crater
Crateris
the Cup
CRAY-ter
cruh-TEE-riss

ancient
Cru
 
 
Crux
Crucis
the Southern Cross
CRUCKS, CROOKS
CROO-siss

16th century, carved out of Centaurus
Cyg
 
 
Cygnus
Cygni
the Swan
SIG-nus
SIG-nye

ancient
Del
 
 
Delphinus
Delphini
the Dolphin
del-FINE-us, del-FIN-us
del-FINE-eye, del-FIN-eye

ancient
Dor
 
 
Dorado
Doradus
the Dolphinfish
duh-RAH-do
duh-RAH-dus

16th century
Dra
 
 
Draco
Draconis
the Dragon
DRAY-co
druh-CONE-iss

ancient
Eql
 
 
Equuleus
Equulei
the Little Horse
eh-QUOO-lee-us
eh-QUOO-lee-eye

ancient
Eri
 
 
Eridanus
Eridani
the River
ih-RID-un-us
ih-RID-un-eye

ancient, a mythological river
For
 
 
Fornax
Fornacis
the Furnace
FOR-naks
for-NAY-siss

18th century
Gem
 
 
Gemini
Geminorum
the Twins
JEM-uh-nye, JEM-uh-nee
JEM-uh-NOR-um

ancient, in zodiac
Gru
 
 
Grus
Gruis
the Crane
GRUSS, GROOS
GROO-iss

16th century
Her
 
 
Hercules
Herculis
Hercules
HER-kyuh-leez
HER-kyuh-liss

ancient, mightiest of heroes
Hor
 
 
Horologium
Horologii
the Clock
hor-uh-LOE-jee-um
hor-uh-LOE-jee-eye

18th century
Hya
 
 
Hydra
Hydrae
the Water Snake
HIGH-druh
HIGH-dree

usually female in ancient times
Hyi
 
 
Hydrus
Hydri
the Male Water Snake
HIGH-drus
HIGH-dry

16th century
Ind
 
 
Indus
Indi
the Indian
IN-dus
IN-dye

16th century
Lac
 
 
Lacerta
Lacertae
the Lizard
luh-SER-tuh
luh-SER-tee

17th century
Leo
 
 
Leo
Leonis
the Lion
LEE-oh
lee-OH-niss

ancient, in zodiac
LMi
 
 
Leo Minor
Leonis Minoris
the Lesser Lion
LEE-oh MY-ner
lee-OH-niss mih-NOR-iss

17th century
Lep
 
 
Lepus
Leporis
the Hare
LEEP-us, LEP-us
LEP-or-iss

ancient
Lib
 
 
Libra
Librae
the Scales
LEE-bruh, LYE-bruh
LEE-bree, LYE-bree

ancient, in zodiac
Lup
 
 
Lupus
Lupi
the Wolf
LOOP-us
LOOP-eye

ancient, far-southern
Lyn
 
 
Lynx
Lyncis
the Lynx
LINKS
LIN-siss

17th century
Lyr
 
 
Lyra
Lyrae
the Lyre
LYE-ruh
LYE-ree

ancient kind of harp
Men
 
 
Mensa
Mensae
the Table
MEN-suh
MEN-see

18th century, from Table Mountain
Mic
 
 
Microscopium
Microscopii
the Microscope
my-cruh-SCOPE-ee-um
my-cruh-SCOPE-ee-eye

18th century
Mon
 
 
Monoceros
Monocerotis
the Unicorn
muh-NAH-ser-us
muh-NAH-ser-OH-tiss

17th century
Mus
 
 
Musca
Muscae
the Fly
MUSS-cuh
MUSS-see, MUSS-kee

18th century
Nor
 
 
Norma
Normae
the Carpenter's Square
NOR-muh
NOR-mee

18th century
Oct
 
 
Octans
Octantis
the Octant
OCK-tanz
ock-TAN-tiss

18th century
Oph
 
 
Ophiuchus
Ophiuchi
the Serpent Bearer
OFF-ee-YOO-kus, OAF-ee-YOO-kus
OFF-ee-YOO-kye, OAF-ee-YOO-kye

ancient4
Ori
 
 
Orion
Orionis
the Hunter
oh-RYE-un, uh-RYE-un
or-eye-OH-niss

ancient, a mythological hunter
Pav
 
 
Pavo
Pavonis
the Peacock
PAY-vo
puh-VOE-niss

16th century
Peg
 
 
Pegasus
Pegasi
the Winged Horse
PEG-us-us
PEG-us-eye

ancient
Per
 
 
Perseus
Persei
the Hero
PER-see-us, PER-syoos
PER-see-eye

ancient, Andromeda's rescuer
Phe
 
 
Phoenix
Phoenicis
the Phoenix
FEE-nix
fuh-NICE-iss

16th century
Pic
 
 
Pictor
Pictoris
the Painter
PICK-ter
pick-TOR-iss

18th century, from Painter's Easel
Psc
 
 
Pisces
Piscium
the Fishes
PICE-eez, PISS-eez
PICE-ee-um, PISH-ee-um

ancient, in zodiac
PsA
 
 
Piscis Austrinus
Piscis Austrini
the Southern Fish
PICE-iss (PISS-iss) aw-STRY-nus
PICE-iss (PISS-iss) aw-STRY-nye

ancient
Pup
 
 
Puppis
Puppis
the Stern
PUP-iss
PUP-iss

of the ship Argo1
Pyx
 
 
Pyxis
Pyxidis
the Magnetic Compass
PIX-iss
PIX-ih-diss

of the ship Argo1
Ret
 
 
Reticulum
Reticulii
the Reticle
rih-TICK-yuh-lum
rih-TICK-yuh-lye

18th century
Sge
 
 
Sagitta
Sagittae
the Arrow
suh-JIT-uh
suh-JIT-ee

ancient
Sgr
 
 
Sagittarius
Sagittarii
the Archer
SAJ-ih-TARE-ee-us
SAJ-ih-TARE-ee-eye

ancient, in zodiac
Sco
 
 
Scorpius5
Scorpii
the Scorpion
SCOR-pee-us
SCOR-pee-eye

ancient, in zodiac
Scl
 
 
Sculptor
Sculptoris
the Sculptor
SCULP-ter
sculp-TOR-iss

18th century, from Sculptor's Studio
Sct
 
 
Scutum
Scuti
the Shield
SCOOT-um, SCYOOT-um
SCOOT-eye, SCYOOT-eye

17th century
Ser
 
 
Serpens
Serpentis
the Serpent
SER-punz
ser-PEN-tiss

ancient4
Sex
 
 
Sextans
Sextantis
the Sextant
SEX-tunz
sex-TAN-tiss

18th century
Tau
 
 
Taurus
Tauri
the Bull
TOR-us
TOR-eye

ancient, in zodiac
Tel
 
 
Telescopium
Telescopii
the Telescope
tel-ih-SCOPE-ee-um
tel-ih-SCOPE-ee-eye

18th century
Tri
 
 
Triangulum
Trianguli
the Triangle
try-ANG-gyuh-lum
try-ANG-gyuh-lye

ancient
TrA
 
 
Triangulum Australe
Trianguli Australis
the Southern Triangle
try-ANG-gyuh-lum aw-STRAL-ee3
try-ANG-gyuh-lye aw-STRAL-iss3
16th century
Tuc
 
 
Tucana
Tucanae
the Toucan
too-KAY-nuh, too-KAH-nuh6
too-KAY-nee, too-KAH-nee6
16th century
UMa
 
 
Ursa Major
Ursae Majoris
the Great Bear
ER-suh MAY-jur
ER-suh muh-JOR-iss

ancient, also called Wagon
UMi
 
 
Ursa Minor
Ursae Minoris
the Lesser Bear
ER-suh MY-ner
ER-suh mih-NOR-iss

ancient
Vel
 
 
Vela
Velorum
the Sails
VEE-luh, VAY-luh
vee-LOR-um, vuh-LOR-um

of the ship Argo1
Vir
 
 
Virgo
Virginis
the Maiden
VER-go
VER-jin-iss

ancient, in zodiac
Vol
 
 
Volans
Volantis
the Flying Fish
VOH-lanz
vo-LAN-tiss

16th century
Vul
 
 
Vulpecula
Vulpeculae
the Fox
vul-PECK-yuh-luh
vul-PECK-yuh-lee

17th century

1The ancient constellation Argo Navis was split into Carina, Puppis, Pyxis, and Vela in the 18th century.

2In 1932 the IAU officially changed this constellation's name from Corona Australis to Corona Austrina (genitive Coronae Austrinae), but the revised name never really caught on. The original name is used far more often, and even the IAU website implicitly endorses it as an alternative.

3Australe, Australis, and Borealis are sometimes prounced aw-STRAIL-ee, aw-STRAIL-iss, and bor-ee-AIL-iss, respectively.

4Ophiuchus and Serpens used to share several stars. The IAU reforms assigned the shared stars to Ophiuchus, leaving Serpens in two disjoint pieces: Serpens Caput (the Serpent's Head) and Serpens Cauda (the Serpent's Tail).

5Before the IAU reforms, astronomers used the names Scorpius and Scorpio interchangeably. Scorpio is now used primarily by astrologers.

6Tucana and Tucanae are sometimes pronounced tyoo-KAY-nuh and tyoo-KAY-nee, respectively.

Constellation Origins

Constellations are human inventions, not things that really exist "out there" in the sky. Different cultures have divided and organized the stars in very different ways, though a few patterns (notably true physical clusters like the Pleiades) are so eye-catching that they're nearly universal. The constellations recognized by scientists today are the ones that arose out of the European tradition.

The major European constellations are very old. A few, notably the Great Bear, are widely believed to predate the invention of writing some 5,000 years ago. And there's compelling evidence that many, including the zodiacal constellations, originated in Mesopotamia sometime before 1,000 BC. Somehow, the Mesopotamian constellations were imported into ancient Greece, but there's no record of how or why this occurred. As for timing, the Mesopotamian constellations were not mentioned in the works of Homer and Hesiod (about 700 BC), but they were firmly entrenched in the earliest comprehensive Greek constellation lists, which appeared around 350 BC.

The Greeks seem to have invented some constellations of their own, notably the Perseus family, around the same time that they adopted the Mesopotomian constellations, and a few more were added after 350 BC. The comprehensive list of ancient constellations appeared in a book written around AD 150 by the Greco-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy. This book, which summarized all of classical astronomy, is now known by its (entirely appropriate) Arabic name: Almagest, meaning "the Greatest."

Astronomy was neglected in Europe for more than a millennium following the Almagest, but it revived in the 15th century, when European navigators started to explore unknown waters. When these sailors ventured south of the equator, they saw stars that were not in Ptolemy's catalog and organized them into new constellations. Later, in the telescopic era, astronomers invented additional constellations to fill the gaps between the traditional ones — areas that were uninteresting to Ptolemy and the early European navigators because they contain no bright stars.

Rome conquered the entire Greek-speaking world by 30 BC, and the Greek constellation names were translated or transliterated into Latin, the primary language of the Roman Empire. Latin has remained the standard language for scientific nomenclature ever since. That's why all constellations invented since classical times have Latin names, as do all species of plants and animals.

Names and Nicknames

Most constellation names are simple common nouns with obvious English equivalents. For instance, Leo is Latin for "the lion" or "a lion." The Greeks sometimes tried to associate the constellation Leo with some particular lion from their mythology, but there's every reason to believe that when they inherited this constellation from Mesopotamia, it was just a generic lion. Or, more precisely, the great celestial Lion — the Lion that Lives in the Sky.

Other constellations are named after specific people or things. For instance, Eridanus is one particular mythological river, not the Latin equivalent of "a river" or "the river." The constellation Perseus is often nicknamed the Hero in English, but this is a little misleading, as that nickname could apply equally well to Hercules.

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of intermediate cases. Thus, Cetus means just a sea monster, whale, or large fish, but it's very likely that the constellation's inventor was thinking of the particular monster that tried to eat Andromeda. And Gemini is the common Latin word for "twins" but also the special epithet of the mythological twins Castor and Pollux.

Pronunciations

Our pronunciations are drawn from four sources:

  1. The article Pronouncing Astronomical Names by George A. Davis, Samuel G. Barton, and I. McHugh, Popular Astronomy. August 1942.

  2. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition.

  3. Celestial Objects for Modern Telescopes by Michael A. Covington, pages 80–84.

  4. Usage polls of Sky & Telescope editors.

Pronouncing Astronomical Names was the report of a committee of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) charged with standardizing the pronunciation of constellations and stars. Sky & Telescope republished the constellation pronunciations several times, first in the June 1943 issue and most recently (with minor modifications) in the article Designated Authority by E. C. Krupp, May 1997, page 66. The AAS pronunciations were the S&T standard until 2004, when the desire to include pronunciation guides in Night Sky magazine forced us to reexamine the entire subject.

In fact, the AAS report is deeply flawed. It was inspired by the IAU's standardization of constellation definitions, but that was a very different situation. The IAU reforms were successful because they addressed an urgent need. Newly discovered variable stars are named after the constellation that contains them, and this only works if everyone agrees on the constellation boundaries. There's no comparable reason to standardize pronunciation. Experienced astronomers, both professional and amateur, pronounce constellation names in many different ways but have no trouble understanding each other. Moreover, the pronunciations chosen for the AAS report were somewhat arbitrary. There are several well-defined systems for pronouncing Latin, and the AAS pronunciations don't conform with any of them.

What's worse, the AAS report clashes with common usage in several important cases. Even at Sky & Telescope, which has been eager to promote the AAS standard, not a single editor pronounces Pisces as piss-ease, in accordance with the AAS recommendations. Nonetheless, having told people for generations that they can't go wrong with the AAS pronunciations, we've made sure that they're all included in the table above, though not necessarily as the first choice.

The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) lists all but two of the constellations, with one or more pronunciations specified for each. It's much more faithful to actual American usage than the AAS report. We've included all of the AHD pronunciations except for a few minor variants.

Michael Covington is a professional linguist with a solid grounding in Greek and Latin. He has also written several books on amateur astronomy. Celestial Objects for Modern Telescopes specifies constellation pronunciations, most of them based on the English system, as explained on Covington's website Latin Pronunciation Demystified. Covington's pronunciations have served as a cross-check on the other authorities.

The editors of Sky & Telescope have served as a handy sample of the American amateur-astronomy community. Several pronunciations were included because they were the most popular choice at S&T, even if they don't appear in any of the other sources.

Finally, it must be emphasized that these are suggestions, not rules. Nobody has the right to complain if you use one of the pronunciations listed here, but there are many equally legitimate ways to pronounce constellation names. For instance, many people rhyme all genitives ending in "i" and "ae" with "be" and "by," respectively. This is exactly backward from what's specified in the table above, but it's how these endings were pronounced in classical antiquity — and how they still are pronounced by many choral groups and by almost everyone outside the English-speaking world.

The bottom line is that if you're happy with the way you say something, and other people understand you, then there's no reason to change.

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