Your BFF just blamed her bad hair day on Mercury retrograde, and your sister “doesn’t date Scorpios.” Astrology is dominating popular culture—permeating our social feeds and dinner party convos with no signs (ha) of slowing down. To keep up with the wave of cosmic lingo, we checked in with Tim Zamboni, astrologer and herbalist at the Alchemist’s Kitchen in New York City. Here, a guide to the most common astrology terms, from rising signs to retrogrades.
Wait, What’s a ‘Retrograde’? And More Astrology Terms, Explained
At the heart of your horoscope is your birth chart. The circular graph shows the full picture of where the sun, moon and planets were positioned at the exact time and place of your birth. When reading a natal chart (or perusing your Co-Star app), the main focus is on your sun, moon and rising signs, as these tell astrologers the most about your personality traits. (You can cast yours here.)
Here’s the one we all know and love—unless you’re a Gemini (we kid). When someone asks about “your sign,” they’re usually referencing the sun’s placement on your chart. Think of it as your sense of self, direction in life and greatest strength. Zamboni tells us our sun sign represents our “intellect, spark and soul.” So, for example, if yours is in Taurus, you may be reliable, endearing and resistant to change.
Your moon sign speaks to your inner emotional reality. Per Zamboni, it’s “correlated with body, feeling, emotion and home.” If the moon was traveling through Libra when you were born, you may feel happiest when your personal relationships are thriving and have a strong instinct to keep the peace.
Say your co-worker invites you to drinks with her friends from yoga class. Chances are you’ll act a bit differently in front of six new faces than you would around your usual crew. Your rising sign, or ascendant, represents this social persona you present to others. In planet parlance, it’s the sign that was dawning at the horizon line (where the sun meets the earth) when you came into the world, the expert says. So, if your rising sign is situated in Pisces, you may come across as imaginative and kind-hearted to those you meet.
Your ’scope says you’re a “fire sign,” but what does that actually mean? For starters, each sign is symbolized by one of the four natural elements (air, water, fire, earth), which can help us understand how each sign navigates the world. Here’s a quick primer:
Air signs: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
Just like the wind, this trio moves quickly, jumping from one idea or conversation topic to the next (and then forgetting how they arrived there in the first place). These signs are endlessly curious, craving freedom and independence.
Earth signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
As in “down to earth.” These signs are grounded, loyal and reliable. And yes, they have a spreadsheet for that.
Water signs: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
Ever describe someone as being “deep”? Creative, compassionate and in tune with the emotions of themselves and others, these signs fit the bill.
Fire signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
They’ve got that spark. Fire signs enliven the party, bringing their energy, ambition and humor to every situation. If you’re thinking it, they’ll say it.
Another way to describe the signs is by modality, or their unifying quality. “One sign of each element is assigned a mode, which describes its character in terms of beginning, middle, and end,” Zamboni notes.
Cardinal: Aries, Cancer, Libra, Capricorn
Meet the “beginning” signs. Zamboni tells us they’re eager to initiate projects but may be slow with the follow-through.
Fixed: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, Aquarius
These four are stationed in the middle of the season, and symbolize staying power. According to the astrologer, “When summer is hottest and winter is coldest, these signs represent capacity in a given direction. Sometimes reluctant to change their ways, they prefer to maintain the course.”
Mutable: Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, Pisces
Represented by the end or pivot point in a cycle, these signs welcome new experiences. “Change and adaptability is their forte; firm decision making is not as much,” Zamboni points out.
Think of planets as the 12 characters of the zodiac, and the signs as the ways in which they behave. If your Mercury (the planet of communication) lies in Aries (an energetic, honest sign), you may be known to tell it like it is without holding back.
Each planet rules over a one or two signs that share its core traits. Uranus, for example, is the “ruling planet” of Aquarius, and they both symbolize revolution, intelligence and innovation. Astrologers believe a planet’s energy is strongest when traveling through the sign it governs. So keep an eye out for these power couples on your chart: (Jupiter rules Sagittarius, Saturn rules Capricorn, Uranus rules Aquarius, Neptune rules Pisces, Mars rules Aries, Venus rules Taurus and Libra, Mercury rules Gemini and Virgo, the moon rules Cancer, the sun rules Leo, Pluto rules Scorpio.)
The planets are always in motion, or transit, in the sky above us. Each one moves at its own pace as it travels through the signs and houses around the chart. Astrologers like Zamboni track these transits—and let us know how spiritual Sagittarius hanging out in expansive Jupiter might up our meditation game this week (or make sure we stay awake during it).
If planets are characters, the houses set the scene, telling us where “to locate a particular celestial event,” according to Zamboni. Each birth chart is divided up into 12 numbered houses, with each section representing a specific realm of our lives (think: romantic love, creative expression and health).
If you’re checking out your chart online, you may see numbered degrees next to the signs and planets. (Your tenth grade geometry teacher is beaming). These degrees, or aspects, describe the angle between two planets and the nature of their relationship. Does their energy coexist or clash? Zamboni breaks down the five major aspects, and what they mean for us IRL:
Conjunction: These neighboring planets sit side-by-side on the graph and share the same 0° angle. A conjunct aspect means the planets’ energies are blended together and intensified, “for better or for worse,” Zamboni adds. So if the pair is in harmony, like emotional moon and romantic Venus, this can be a beneficial matchup.
Opposition: These guys are situated at a 180° aspect, so they’re directly across from one another on the zodiac wheel. Like two sides of the same coin, these planets can represent two opposing parts of your personality. The challenge: making sure they’re always in balance.
Square: Here’s where things get a little tricky. When two planets are 90° apart, it signals constant tension between each force. Have empathetic and dreamy Neptune squaring confident Jupiter? You might be overly trusting of others and get caught up in your imagination (yep, you just daydreamed through that entire meeting).
Trine: A 120-degree aspect, or trine, indicates peace between the planets: the two work together with ease and enhance each other’s best qualities. “There’s agreement and proliferation here,” Zamboni shares.
Sextile: Sextile angles signify opportunities for growth. Located 60° apart, Zamboni tells us there’s “a synergistic harmony to this kind of aspect.” It just takes a bit more effort for these two to discover their full potential.
Direct Vs. Retrograde
The planets move throughout each sign in specific order, starting with Aries and ending with Pisces. “When planets proceed in this order, they are said to be moving forward, or direct,” Zamboni explains. “Sometimes, they appear to be moving backward in zodiacal order, and this is known as retrograde motion.”
Let’s address the hysteria. Mercury retrograde isn’t a bad omen lurking in the shadows, waiting to sabotage your career, relationships and finances at every turn. Instead, most astrologers agree it’s an annoyance. Zamboni sets the record straight: “Mercury is associated with transportation, transmission and travel. When [it’s] retrograde, it causes delays and do-overs in these activities.” Think: flight delays, spotty Wi-Fi and car trouble. See? Nothing to worry about. (But maybe delete your ex’s number just in case.)
Remember those aspects we talked about? In the new moon, the bright beauty is conjunct with the sun. Zamboni describes this time as “growing light,” one of “planting seeds and new beginnings.” Want to swap Netflix time for real human interactions? Or start finally cooking with more veggies? Now’s your chance to dream up your intentions for the next six months.
Here, the moon is opposite the sun. Zamboni tells us this represents culmination—here’s when we see those seeds bloom. The spotlight is on our completed projects (aka that full head of cauliflower you finally learned to roast). Zamboni’s tip: “Watch out for werewolves.”