Q&A: Asterisk or asterix?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, special conditions apply…

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the name of that little star used for footnotes and disclaimers? 

A: Twinkle twinkle?

Q: No – the punctuation mark. It’s above the “8” on a keyboard.

A: Ah, you mean the “asterisk”.

Q: Yes! That’s what I thought. But why do I hear people call it an “asterix” with an X?

A: The GAUL!

Q: I think you meant to say, “the gall”?

A: No, we’re talking about the warrior Asterix – and his large friend Obelix. They lived in northern France (“Gaul”) in 50BC with their pet Dogmatix and an entire village of characters with equally clever wordplay names like the old druid Geriatrix or fishmonger Unhygienix. 

Q: What are you talking about? 

A: “The Adventures of Asterix” of course – a comic book series first created by French writer René Gosinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo in 1959.

Q: I was more of a Tintin fan…

A: Well, the title character “Asterix” was of course a play on the word “asterisk”. The word comes from Greek “asteriskos” – meaning little star and has been in English since the late 14th century.

Q: The “ast” part makes sense I suppose, like an “asteroid” or “astronomy”.

A: Yeah, that’s right – they all have a similar origin.

Q: So surely it can’t just be readers of Asterix getting this word wrong?

A: Unlikely – but it is troublesome in speech, perhaps due to the tricky “-sk” sound. That said, most other words such as “basilisk” or “multitask” don’t seem to have the same problem. Yet then you have “ask” – which some cultures and dialects famously pronounce as “aks”.

Q: So is it simply laziness?

A: English is full of shortcuts – it’s constantly evolving, much to purists’ horror. In the case of “asterisk/asterix”, it’s probably a combination of laziness in speech as well as the effect of the comic book. And in writing, the misspelling of “asterisk” is likely a result of hearing someone say it wrong. Much like how people think the coffee is “expresso” when it’s actually “espresso”.

Q: Oh yes, that always leaves a bitter taste.

A: Have you tried a lighter roast on the coffee beans?

Q: Thanks, I’ll try that.

A: Anyway, there is actually a name for this swapping of sounds like “sk/ks” and others. It’s called “metathesis”.

Q: For her PhD, my friend wrote her thesis on the act of writing a thesis – it was a very “meta” thesis, I thought.

A: Cute, but this is different and goes back to how English has evolved over the centuries. Many words have had their spellings and pronunciations changed. A common metathesis example often stated is children who say “pasketti” instead of “spaghetti”. Another example is saying “nucular” for “nuclear”. 

Q: And “asterix” instead of “asterisk”…

A: Exactly. The key here is that it is often written incorrectly too – and yes, the Gaulish warrior from the comic books probably does have something to answer for. And no amount of magic potion will fix it.

Q: Fisk it?

A: No, fix it.

Q: One thing that really bugs me is when there’s an asterisk in text that doesn't lead anywhere – you scan the end of the article or bottom of the page and nothing!

A: Yes, that can be frustrating (similar to a parenthesis that isn’t closed.

Q: I see what you did there.

A: You certainly did.*

Q: Nooooooo…

 

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