What's the Word: Lodestar

Sep 21, 2018

Credit Hanna Shelton

After the release of an editorial in the New York Times in early September, 2018, the word “Lodestar” started garnering a lot of attention. The word features prominently in the anonymous Op-Ed in the context of lamenting the recent death of Senator John McCain. The unnamed author wrote,

“We may no longer have Senator McCain. But we will always have his example — a lodestar for restoring honor to public life and our national dialogue.” 

The appearance of this rather perplexing, outdated, uncommon word helped fuel a firestorm of speculation concerning who, exactly, authored this controversial document. Linguistic detectives immediately set to work analyzing who, if anyone, in the Trump Administration uses, or has ever used, an unusual, even archaic word like “Lodestar.”

As it turns out, investigators didn’t have to look far: “Lodestar” is a word and an image frequently invoked by Vice President Mike Pence. Pundits and late-night comedians were quick to compile and broadcast multiple examples of the vice president using the word again and again in speeches given across the country.

Vice President Pence has emphatically denied that he is the author of the scathing editorial, and of course, to be fair, anyone could have used the word Lodestar. However, what remains odd is that the term is not one that leaps easily to the lips of public speakers in 2018. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word Lodestar has been out of common usage for centuries.

So, what, precisely, is a Lodestar? The word combines two complete words in order to create a brand new single word: “Lode” and, of course, “Star.” Again, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “Lode” is an Old English variant of “Load,” but was pronounced “Lah-D,” which slowly evolved over time into the modern pronunciation. In late Middle English, a “lode” meant a course, a path, or even a waterway. “Lode” could (and can) also mean a thin vein of precious metals, which explains the phrase screamed by every grizzled prospector in every movie: “I’ve hit the motherlode!” 

By the early 16th century, the related term “Lodestone” was in common usage. A Lodestone is a naturally magnetic rock, which could thus serve as a kind of primitive compass. A Lodestar is somewhat similar to a Loadstone: in the late 16th century, “Loadstar” is another name for Polaris, the North Star, which sailors often used, and sometimes still use today, as a navigational guide to help bring their ships safely home. The word has since taken on the related positive denotation of something inspirational, something that guides you towards all things good.

As practical and natural as a Lodestar is, poets in the late 16th century found ways to also make the term romantic. In his sonnets, specifically, Sonnet Thirty-Four, dedicated to his wife Elizabeth, the English Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser imagines himself as a ship, lost at sea, and his wife’s brilliant, loving eyes as the North Star that will guide him safely back to her arms:

“Yet hope I well, that when this storm is past / My Helice, the lodestar of my life / Will shine again, and look on me at last, / With lovely light to clear my cloudy grief.”

(Incidentally, the word “Helice,” which could be pronounced in a way similar to “Eliza,” i.e. Spenser’s wife, refers to the constellation that contains Polaris, the Lodestar)

So, all politics aside, maybe the word Lodestar needs to make a comeback in the English lexicon. It might serve us well next Valentine’s Day, when we all need to give thanks for the Lodestars in our lives.

So remember, folks, use your words, especially if no one else is using them!   

This month’s “What’s the Word?” segment was written and performed by Drs. Rusty Jones and Carrie Jerrell from Murray State University’s Department of English and Philosophy, and engineered by Chad Lampe, WKMS.