By the light of the silvery moon

By Mellissa Martinez

This month we were treated to a mega moon. Appearing 16 percent brighter and 14 percent larger than our average, run-of-the mill moon, it was aptly called a‘Supermoon.’ This relatively new word connotes compounds like ‘superman’ and ‘superstar,’ all the while giving people the idea that something spectacular is happening. Coined in 1979 by astrologer Richard Noelle, it describes a full moon on its closest approach to earth, when the earth, moon and sun are in line.

Although this phenomenon is not especially rare, it still caused a stir. There was much sarcasm over National Geographic’s headline, “Supermoon Coming Saturday—Not a Threat to Earth.” Did people really entertain the crazy notion that the moon was too close to us? It wouldn’t be the first time that the moon caused craziness. In the Middle Ages, people believed that crazy spells were triggered by the moon’s cycle, which led to the word ‘lunacy,’ from the Latin luna, ‘moon.’ Luna came from the moon goddess of the same name. Her name was derived from both lux ‘light’ and lucere ‘to shine.’ English relatives include ‘light,’ ‘lunar,’ ‘lunatic’ and ‘luna,’ the alchemical name for silver.

The English words ‘moon’ and ‘month’ both come from the Proto Indo-European root me-, ‘to measure.’ This is because the moon’s phases were once used as a measure of time to calculate the month. In fact, the lunar calendar is still used to determine holidays in many cultures, and in some languages, the word for ‘moon’ is still the same as ‘month.’ In Farsi, for example, maah is used for ‘month,’ ‘moon’ and ‘fantastic.’ In Greek, mene means ‘moon’ while men refers to ‘month.’ The Latin mensis, ‘month’ led to English words like ‘menstruation,’ ‘menopause’ and ‘semester,’ a course of 6 months.

‘Monday,’ the day that measures the beginning of the week in many cultures, literally means ‘the moon’s day.’ This is also the case in most Romance languages. Consider Spanish, lunes, and Italian, lunedi. Other moon compounds, like ‘honeymoon’ continue to remind us of the fleeting nature of time. From the early 1500s, hony moone meant ‘indefinite period of tenderness and pleasure experienced by a newly wed couple.’ ‘Honey,’ of course, expressed the sweetness of the moment, while ‘moon’ underscores the temporary state of the sweetness. Many Romance languages share this cognate, as in the French, lune de miel, and Italian, luna di miele.

Another well-known combo, ‘moonstruck,’ came about in the 1670s from the verb ‘to moon.’ The initial meaning of this verb was ‘expose to moonlight,’ but it eventually changed to mean ‘being idle’ or ‘moving listlessly,’ later referred to as being ‘moonstruck.’ These days when we hear ‘moon’ as a verb, most of us think of a college prank. That meaning did, in fact, come from a college campus around the 1960s. It wasn’t because pranksters were exposing themselves to moonlight. Rather, it is believed that the usually unexposed section of the body resembles our round, white moon.

Some women can find their namesake in the moon. Cynthia, ‘the moon,’ was an epithet for Diana, the ancient Italian goddess of the moon, who derived her name from the PIE root dyue- ‘to shine.’ Juno, ‘the young one,’ is thought to be the goddess of the new moon while Minerva, the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom, was considered the mother of the moon. Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, gets her name from PIE swell- ‘to burn’ and has related English words like ‘swelter’ and sultry.’ Her original name was Phoebe from the Greek phoibos, ‘bright and pure.’

This year, we will be treated to the rare blue moon—the second full moon in the same month. The infrequency with which this occurs has led to the well-known idiomatic expression, once in a blue moon, used for rare events. On the last day in August, take the opportunity to enjoy an evening under the light of the crazy, fantastic, silvery-blue moon. I will do so at the wedding of longtime friends and neighbors, whose lovely daughter is perfectly named, Phoebe.


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