Bill Long 10/13/04
Of Stars, Seals and Fraud
The Latin word "stella," meaning "star," forms the basis of this mini-essay. The first meaning of stellar is "pertaining to the stars or a star; of the nature of a star." Carlyle could speak of each leaf as an indissoluble part of the solar and stellar system. But with little stretch of the linguistic imagination this usage was expanded to include "having the quality of a star" or "outstanding." The Times Literary Supplement claimed that the Gutenberg Bible version of the Book of Daniel was the stellar attraction of an exhibition. We know the noun form of this word as stardom, even though the lesser-used stellardom is attested.
But if stardom or stellardom is the aim of many, stellify is the word describing the process of becoming a star. Not so fast, however. The original meaning of stellify is to "transform a person or thing into a start or constellation." Thus, it is a term taken from the world of Greek mythology where a hero like Orion or a maiden like Cassiopeia was put in the heavens or stellified. And, the word can be used by that most outspoken book of Protestant vituperation, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, in this sense when the author says, "The bishop of Rome which for his abominable pride...is fallen from heaven, thinketh ..to stellify again himself there from where he hath fallen."
But, as with stellar, the word stellify can refer to the ambitions of humans for "stardom." We can stellify a hero in the constellation of the national luminaries. A person can attempt to stellify himself by some kind of extraordinary achievement. This process can be called stellification. If someone were to give you a quiz asking for the word that didn't belong from these four: canonization, stellification, beatificiation and sanctification, it would be the second, even though it might be a good idea every once in a while to have a religious "star" without ladening that person with holy significance. Speaking of a religious theme, a stellifer was a medieval monk or Knight of the Teutonic Order who wore (Latin is "fero") a red star above the cross in his uniform.
Then we can talk about the form of the star and use the word stelliform to describe this reality. A better-attested word for this is stellate, which can either be an adjective or a verb, but as an adjective it means "star-shaped." However, stellate, in poetic speech, signifies "of the sky" or "studded with stars." "The stellate heavens danced with thousands of glistening sparks of light." Stellaceous is a third word meaning "star-shaped." A star fish is known as a stellerid, and the great Linneaus divided the Echinoderms into three sections: the Stelleridans, the Echinidans and Fistulidans.
Leaving the Stars Behind
We gradually begin to recede from the idea of "stars" while still using the root stella in the word stellation. This has two significations, both of which have seemingly little to do with stars. The first is the "blighting" or "blasting" of trees with draught. In this sense stellation is also known as sideration, taken from the Latin sideratio, meaning a blast or palsy. Sideration is now rare, according to the OED, and can refer either to the blasting of trees by the Eastern wind or, more colorfully, a kind of paralysis of palsy. This ailment was apparently visited on animal creatures as one of the Magnalia Christi Americana attested by the prolific Puritan author Cotton Mather (1702). Stellation in the sense of the blasting of trees was thought to have been caused by heavenly (starry) influence. There's the connection.
Stellation has a further significance in solid geometry (or stereometry). In a book that no doubt would have been a best seller in any century, Fifty-Nine Icosohedra, a twentieth-century author says, "We enumerate and describe the polyhedra that [can be generated by] five Platonic solids by stellation, i.e., by extending or producing 'the faces' until they meet again, always preserving the rotational symmetry of the original solid." According to the ancient Greeks, there are only five solids which can be constructed by choosing a regular convex polygon and having the same number of them meet at each corner. For example, the cube has three squares at each corner and the tetrahedron has three equilateral triangles at each corner. The other three such solids are the dodecahedron, the icosahedron, and the octahedron. Doesn't this sound like the math lesson that you missed in high school or junior high?
I suppose it would have been unusual not to have some legal usage appear with stell. Maybe the "Star Chamber" of the 16th century would have been known as the stellspace or something like that (It wasn't). But the legal terms are from property law and do not actually come off the root stell, even if the terms appear similiar. The words are stellionate or, in Latin, stellionatus. The former is defined, in Black's Law Dictionary, as "In civil law, a name given generally to all species of frauds committed in making contracts but particularly to the crime of aliening the same subject to different persons. Ah, yes, that can kind of get you into trouble, don't you think?
So, there is some minor confusion here, it seems to me. On the one hand stellionate, which is a noun, means a crime of general fraud, sort of an umbrella term for fraud. A seventeenth-century writer captures this general sense: "Legislators were forced to invent this general name of stellionate; under which they might range all Cheats." Yet, on the other hand, by the time the eighteenth century rolled around, a legal author could say as follows: "The crime of stellionate includes every fraud which is not distinguished by a special name; but is chiefly applied to conveyances of the same numerical right, granted by the proprietor to different disponees." Yet, as early as 1622, Bacon could talk about the fourfold task of the Court of Start Chamber as to discern "Forces, Frauds, Crimes various of Stellionate, and the Inchoations or middle Acts, towards crimes Capitall, or hainous, not actually committed."
Thus, it isn't really clear when stellionate achieved its more narrow signification, but by the middle of the 18th century we can conclude it was used in a broad and a narrow way. Before proceeding on this, it might be helpful to define a few more legal terms. That will be the task of the next essay.