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I'm not a native speaker of English.

The word "star", as a celestial object, is usually (or nearly always) defined as, well, e.g. the Sun, Sirius etc in dictionaries.

However, it seems unnatural to me, being "too technical" despite of the very elementary nature of the word "star". In fact, it originally meant, and remains to mean today, any bright dot in the night sky. (cf. shooting star, morning star... See also the first definition of Wiktionary)

What does the word "star" exactly mean for ordinary people? For example, suppose an adult friend of yours says "Look at that star!", and you reply "No, it's a planet," can it sound like you're looking down at them? If it is a child who says so, isn't such reply too difficult? Or even most 6-year old kids ditinguish the notion of star from that of planet? (Anyway visual distinction is a different matter.)

EDIT: Maybe my question can be summarized as: "Is it wrong/strange to count planets, commets and perhaps meteors that you see as stars?"

BTW in Japanese, the word 「星」 means "any" stars, while the word 「恒星」 is for nuclear fusion stars. The letter 「恒」 means "constant", so the literal meaning of 「恒星」 is close to the word "fixed star". (I guess 恒星 was coined as a translation of "fixed star".)

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    The word 'planet' comes from the Greek planetes meaning 'wandering'. They were 'wandering stars' until it was realised they were orbiting the Sun. There's only three commonly visible (Mars, Mercury, Venus) among hundreds of visible stars (or thousands without light pollution) so the occasion of pointing out the difference should always be instructive. And now we have the Space Station which can sometimes be noticed. – Nigel J Aug 22 at 7:57
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    Traditional names for the planet Venus (at different times of day) were the Morning Star and the Evening Star - see universetoday.com/22570/venus-the-morning-star I'm no astronomer, but I don't think anyone would tell a friend that a planet was not a star, just that a particular star was actually one of the planets. – Kate Bunting Aug 22 at 8:33
  • @NigelJ: It's nice to remind us of the ISS. I don't think anyone will count it as a star! - It's obvisously artifical, and it's easy to notice it's moving. – teika kazura Aug 22 at 23:27
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I think it's important to consider the historical understanding of what a star is. In astronomy today, we consider a star to be:

Wikipedia: an astronomical object consisting of a luminous spheroid of plasma held together by its own gravity.

Of course, in ancient times, people had no concept of plasma or gravity; they just looked up in the sky and saw a bunch of pretty lights; some of them wandered around the sky (planets, which as @NigelJ points out, comes from the Greek wandering star); some of them seemed to fall to Earth; etc. So, historically, we didn't really make distinctions among the objects in the sky; they were all stars. (And, of course, there were no space stations in ancient times).

With the invention of telescopes in the early 1600s, we could begin to see that some of the night-time objects were quite different; for example, we could see the moons of Jupiter, and the rings of Saturn. We could also tell that some objects were much closer.

As science continued to develop, we began to study the composition of planets and stars. There's actually a number of pertinent questions on some other Stack Exchange sites you might be interested in:

I would argue that, at least in English, the word star, by itself, generally refers just to Wikipedia mentions: an astronomical object consisting of a luminous spheroid of plasma held together by its own gravity. As you note, the [wictionary] entry also defines star as:

any small luminous dot appearing in the cloudless portion of the night sky, especially with a fixed location relative to other such dots

(emphasis mine).

The term star can today refer to other things: There's different star-shapes we can draw. And we refer to things like shooting stars (meteoroid), the morning/evening star (Venus), etc.


As with anything, the term star may be used a bit more loosely in colloquial vs. scientific settings; however, I believe most people understand the term (by itself) to refer to astronomical stars. That being said, it's important to avoid over-the-top prescriptivism: Don't call Venus the Evening Star: It's a planet! just makes you sound like a tool.

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    I agree very much with this. If you say, “Look at the stars!”, it’s clear that you mean all the little dots in the sky, even if some of them are planets (or even aeroplanes). But there’s nothing overly pedantic or arrogant about saying, “See that big one there on the left? That’s actually not a star at all, but a planet”. People know that stars and planets are different things, but most probably wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other with the naked eye. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 22 at 14:42
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: I agree. I think most people (myself included) would not be able to distinguish a star from a planet by just looking at the sky with unaided eyes. – Zack Aug 22 at 15:04
  • This answer is very good and some of those little points of light are entire galaxies. – Lambie Aug 22 at 16:07
  • @Zack: Thank you very much for your work, and your last paragraph is informative for English learners. But ESE is for the language itself, and I'm questioning the current word usage, so I'm afraid historical, scientific parts are rather chatty and off-topic. – teika kazura Aug 22 at 23:27

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