Cast into the outer darkness. No, even more outer

I'm sure everyone is sick to death of all that "save Pluto!" jive (my position: the more different official types of things there are in the solar system, the awesomer), but for those looking to start transpacific trouble, here's the official Japanese term for "dwarf planet": 矮惑星, pronounced waiwakusei.

Wakusei is the standard word for "planet." Etymologically, it means "lost/troubled star", maybe because they move around in the sky so much more than the actual stars. Wai, unsurprisingly, means "dwarf", and is used in Sino-Japanese words like 矮樹 (waiju, "small tree"), and ateji-style to write native Japanese/heavily Japanesified words like 矮鶏 (chabo, "bantam") and 矮人 (hikiudo, "dwarf" or "midget").

My dictionary tells me that the the part on the right is borrowed from 萎, "weaken, wither", while the 矢 radical on the left represents a person. This would make the character a very close relative of 倭, the original Chinese character for Japan, which many people suspect also meant "midget[land]."

Incidentally, I feel that we English speakers have lost a great opportunity to name Pluto and its brethren "strange dark orbs at the very rim of our solar system" ("stradorbs" for short).

Popularity factor: 7

Paul Davidson:

Hey, Pluto will always a planet in my books. Dwarf planet is a silly compromise, since we've already got minor planets (Ceres and its ilk).

I wish they'd recognize Sedna and Xena and Quaoar as planets too so they could get cool Japanese kanji names.


Wakusei is the standard word for "planet." Etymologically, it means "lost/troubled star", maybe because they move around in the sky so much more than the actual stars.

"Planet" derives from Greek "planasthai" ("to wander") for just that reason. Is the Japanese term an independent coinage for the obvious observational difference between planets and other stars, or was this a scientific term later adopted from Europe?

I'm with you on the new complexity of the solar system, though. In the past week I've learned it's a far more interesting place than I had thought. The old 9-planets-around-a-sun model suddenly sems as outdated as the Bohr model of the atom. A quick google found this page of animations showing just how many solar-system objects there are.

I like "stradorbs," which is more fun than the still-fun Trans-Neptunian Objects, but I think you have to give the astronomers credit for "cubewanos."


I would have liked to see Pluto rebranded a "planette". Shame...


Paul: Reactionary! Paper tiger!

Brian: Good question! I know of at least one other word for planet, 遊星 (frolicking/travelling star?), and I always figured they came from Chinese sources. Maybe a Chinese classicist can help out. (FWIW, I don't know of any native Japanese words for the class of planets specifically, as opposed to "stars and planets" and particular planets.)

FMKS: "Planette" is nice too.


the modern chinese word for planet is 行星 ("moving star," perhaps?). tho i can't say i haven't seen 惑星 before, i had always assumed it was 和製, because the incidences of its use in chinese (writing) are few and far between, and as far as i can remember, all modern (possibly in chinese translations of japanese novels by a taiwanese publishing house). to me, this looks more like something resembling an independent coinage.


Huh, interesting. So are there no old Chinese astronomical treatises that talk about "planets" as opposed to "all bright lights in the sky" or "mercury", "venus", etc.?


I'm not familiar with old astronomical texts, but there's a citation in 汉语大词典 for 行星 from the Song dynasty (沈括,《梦溪笔谈·象数一》:“辰星,日之近辅,远乎日不乎一辰,故为行星之长。”) 辰星 here is 水星, Mercury.

The other terms mentioned here don't have entries in that dictionary.

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