Whether speculating on the havoc it wreaks when it’s full or waxing poetic on the beauty of its glow, people love talking about the moon. This age-old fascination with our celestial satellite has resulted in a lexicon loaded with lunar-themed words, phrases, and meanings. Consider the array of senses we have for the word moon itself: in addition to referencing our silvery orb, the term can mean “to act or wander abstractly or listlessly,” “to sentimentalize or remember nostalgically,” “to gaze dreamily,” or even “to expose one’s buttocks.” Here’s a look at the meanings and histories of 9 moony terms and phrases.
Nowadays, most of us would describe a lunatic as a person of unsound mind. But in the Middle Ages, one might describe a lunatic as a person who is acting under the influence of luna, the Latin word for “moon.” The notion that the moon causes certain kinds of madness or evokes dangerous aspects of our personalities has been around for millennia; Aristotle suggested that the moon could cause insanity by manipulating fluids in the brain, much in the same way it commands the tides.
In sailing, a moonraker is a light sail set at the top of the mast. But this term is also a demonym for people from Wiltshire, England. As the story goes, a few men from Wiltshire were discovered trying to rake the moon’s reflection out of a pond. However, if you ask a Wiltshire native, he or she might tell you another version of the story: the men were raking a pond for kegs of smuggled brandy, and when authorities appeared, the rakers feigned madness.
Many of us use this term to mean “dreamily romantic,” a sense that was famously evoked in the 1987 movie titled Moonstruck starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, but drawing on the theme of moon-induced madness, moonstruck can also mean “mentally deranged, supposedly by the influence of the moon.”
Not all moon words conjure insanity or dreamy contemplation—moonlight, for example, can evoke industriousness. In addition to the noun meaning of “light of the moon,” moonlight can also mean “to work at an additional job, especially at night.” Approximately 70 years before that dutiful verb sense arose, moonlight meant to commit a crime at night. Starting at the turn of the 20th century, moonlighting also described fleeing one’s residence under the cover of darkness to skip out on paying rent.
First appearing in the 1400s as another term for moonlight, moonshine is now most commonly used to refer to smuggled or illicitly distilled liquor, a popular term during Prohibition. This black-market booze likely earned this moony moniker because it was smuggled by the light (or shine) of the moon. Moonshine can also mean “nonsense.”
Many old languages had one word for both month and moon, since it takes approximately one month for the moon to orbit around Earth. The moon in honeymoon draws on this temporal sense, reminding newlyweds that their period of blissful harmony has an expiration date.
This phrase is commonly means “very rarely,” as in “once in a blue moon,” and is sometimes used to suggest that something nearly never happens. Although the phrase is also commonly used to refer to the second full moon in a calendar month, it seems more likely that the “very rarely” sense came from the occasional appearance of a moon as blue in color due to extreme atmospheric conditions.
Over the moon
One of the earliest uses of this idiom, which means “extremely delighted” or “very pleased,” comes courtesy of the following nursery-rhyme line from the 1700s: “High diddle, diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle, The Cow jump’d over the Moon.” Centuries later, J.R.R. Tolkien explained the fantastical abilities of the high-vaulting cow in his book of poetry, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.
Reach for the moon
A few centuries before cows began jumping over the moon to express their glee, people talking about the moon as a place or thing that is difficult or impossible to reach or obtain. The idiom “reach for the moon,” which means “to desire or attempt something unattainable or difficult to obtain,” incorporates this this wistful theme.
What are some of your favorite moon-related words or terms?
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