An American space traveler is called in English an astronaut. A French space traveler is called in English an astronaut (not l'astronaute). A Japanese space traveler is called in English an astronaut (not uchū hikō-shi). A Chinese space traveler is usually also described in English as an astronaut. So, why are Russian space travelers called in English cosmonauts?

  • 10
    Because from the perspective of the people who coined and used the word "astronaut", for half a century the Russians were the "bad guys", and the astronauts were the heroes, and no one wants to give the bad guys a heroic appellation. Using the (transliterated) Russian word "Cosmonaut" was the West's way of maintaining a cold professionalism towards the Russian program (it was irreproachable in the sense that no one could rightly complain if we called them by their own word), while denying them the respect inherent in "Astronaut". And it stuck. It's really that simple.
    – Dan Bron
    Mar 5, 2016 at 18:29
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    It's the term the Russians used, transliterated into English. The Russians were the first to orbit a man around the Earth, and they got to choose their term for it. The more legitimate question is why everyone else is called an "Astronaut", though my recollection is that this term had been chosen by NASA before the first manned flights.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 5, 2016 at 19:51
  • The academic translation of "astronaut" in French is "spationaute". But, both astronaute and cosmonaute are more used (refer to Google ngram).
    – Graffito
    Mar 5, 2016 at 20:12
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    @DudleyM As an aside, a Chinese space traveler is called "taikonaut" oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/taikonaut, and an Indian one a vyomanaut en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/vyomanaut
    – Elian
    Mar 5, 2016 at 21:16
  • 1
    @HotLicks good point about the Soviets accomplishing Yuri Gagarin's orbit first, earning them naming rights.
    – DudleyM
    Mar 8, 2016 at 5:00

1 Answer 1


I think because it derives from the Russian term kosmonavt,

Cosmonaut :

  • 1959, Englishing of Russian kosmonavt, ultimately from Greek kosmos (see cosmos) + nautes "sailor" (see naval). (Etymonline)

From Quora:

  • The distinction is that they are titles awarded by different space agencies. They both mean essentially the same thing and they both come from Greek.

    • Astronaut - astro (star) + naut (sailor) - Cosmonaut - cosmos (space) + naut (sailor)
  • Cosmonaut is the Anglicization of the Russian word космонавт. As the "space race" was a point of national pride, neither country was about to adopt the other's terminology.

  • Cosmonaut is used by the Russian Space Agency. Astronaut is used by NASA, ESA, CSA, and JAXA. The Chinese don't use Greek terminology. The use their own language and call the person "space navigating personnel".

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