In honor of Valentine's Day, let's revisit one of the most famous couples in the love-story canon: Romeo and Juliet. Remember how the prologue to Shakespeare's play introduces them? "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life."
Star-cross'd! Isn't it romantic?
Well, no. Not to Shakespeare, who's credited with coining the phrase: his audience, and audiences for more than three centuries afterward, understood "star-crossed" to mean "thwarted by fate." "Crossed" meant "deceived," as in "double-crossed."
But in recent years something curious has been happening to "star-crossed": for many writers, it's become a wholly positive adjective, delightful rather than dire. What's going on?
Take a look at these examples and see if you can figure it out:
And it's not only humans that can be happily star crossed. In 2000, the Independent (UK) published a story about a successful space mission. The headline: "Star crossed spacecraft nears Valentine's date." I repeat: the mission was a success.
How did "star-crossed" morph from tragic to cheery? I have a few theories.
For starters, although modern Westerners are fond of astrology—there's a horoscope in virtually every daily newspaper in the United States—we've mostly lost the concept of an "unlucky star." (Note: In India, where astrology is taken more seriously and caste can still pull sweethearts apart, "star-crossed" is used in its original, tragic sense.) The astrologically inclined may blame the cosmos for fleeting snafus, but horoscopes steer well clear of "You will marry your mother and murder your father." Not coincidentally, destiny—which, historically and etymologically, signifies a firmly established lot in life—is now considered within mortal control; "fate" is often just a synonym for "the future." That notion has been gaining ground since "Invictus," the 1875 poem by William Ernest Henley, whose much-quoted final couplet reads "I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul."
Second, even if you happen to recognize "star-crossed lovers" as a line from Romeo and Juliet, you may be a little fuzzy about the play's last act, which does not end with "happily ever after." For much of the English-speaking world, Romeo and Juliet are simply symbols of passionate young love.
Then there are the overwhelmingly positive connotations of star in our everyday language, from swashbuckling (Star Wars, Star Trek) to admiring ("You're a rock star!" uttered as a casual compliment). If we're ambitious we aim for the stars; if we follow celebrities we're starstruck. Some writers use "star-crossed" as a synonym for "starry-eyed"—that is, naïvely optimistic—as in this sentence in a sports story published on a Fox TV website: "Don't blame Giants offensive lineman if he might have seemed a tad star-crossed at the prospect of being apart [sic] of Super Bowl XLVI."
Finally, there's some sonic blurring of "crossed" and "kissed." As Yale University linguist Laurence Horn pointed out to me in an email, "star-kissed" occasionally appears as a variant of "star-crossed" and is more likely to be interpreted as a simple positive. An amusing interchange in a recently published romance novel, Borrowing a Bachelor, makes the confusion explicit:
"I don't know." She shook her head and looked out over the bay again. "Maybe we're just"—she gestured with her glass—"star-kissed lovers."
"Um, I think that's star-crossed lovers," Adam said, struggling to keep a straight face.
"That's what I said."
"Nope. You said star-kissed."
"Oh. Well, doesn't that sound more romantic?"
Actually, it sounds like a brand of canned tuna to me.
When I first began seeing "star-crossed" where I'd have expected, say, "starry-eyed," I chalked it up to user error. Now I'm not so sure. We accept that words may change their meanings over time: silly once meant "happy," happy originally meant "lucky." So why make a fuss when an idiom undergoes a semantic shift? It's been happening for quite a while, after all, with another famous line from Romeo and Juliet, "Wherefore are thou Romeo?" Hardly anyone now knows (or cares) that wherefore means why; the word it sounds to modern ears like a fancied-up where, which is why a modern speaker of English may think that Juliet is asking for Romeo's coordinates, not wishing he had a different name.
On the other hand, I doubt that I'll be wishing anyone a "star-crossed Valentine's Day." Not this year, anyway.
Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books.Click here to read other articles by Nancy Friedman