Some might refer to it as a star, but nearly everyone recognizes an asterisk. So why do people so often pronounce it incorrectly?
Most kids first saw an asterisk on their telephone dial. Long before we had cell phones, we had that little star in the lower-left corner of a phone keypad. Unfortunately for our vocabulary, people usually called the symbol a “star” rather than by its proper name.
The word asterisk came into English in the late 14th century, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. I find the OED a fascinating reference that not only defines words but explains how they came to be.
It defines the word as a “figure used in printing and writing to indicate footnote, omission, etc., or to distinguish words or phrases as conjectural.”
It also tells us the word traces its origin to the late Latin Latin asteriscus and from the Greek asteriskos. Both words, you may not be surprised to learn, mean “little star.”
Some are signed with six points (three crossing lines) while others are formed with five points. Some feature straight lines while others have lines that fatten out toward the tips, more resembling a daisy, a popular design element of the 1960s and 1970s.
I think I know why people can’t pronounce asterisk properly.
I belong to a Facebook group of grammar enthusiasts. Members routinely post photos and screen grabs of grammatical faux pas. They are quick to ridicule and belittle, and quick to complain about such mistakes.
Recently, a member asked why so many people pronounce asterisk as “asterix.”
If you listen carefully, you will surely hear someone make that mispronunciation.
The member of the Facebook group apparently reached his breaking point with it.
I have a theory I believe will easily explain the confusion. The mark is one we normally see only. We rarely, if ever, hear it referred to by its proper name. That’s part of the problem.
Because we rarely hear the word, not as many people know the name for it as they might recognize a period or comma’s name.
The somewhat smaller percentage of people who refer to it by name, then, may only have heard it spoken themselves. How often, other than this blog post, have you seen the word asterisk typed out lately?
They’re pronouncing what they think they’ve heard. That’s another part of the problem.
And those who do pronounce it may not enunciate it as clearly as they should. That’s the third part of the problem.
As we know, the ear is one of the worst receptors of information. The sound goes by and if we miss it, it’s too late. We hear what we think we hear and run with that information.
Someone who pronounces the word properly but doesn’t enunciate clearly enough could sound like they’re saying “asterix.” The -isk ending sounds like an -x.
So for a word we rarely see or hear, it’s no wonder more people out there aren’t butchering the little old asterisk when they call it by name.