Increase your English vocabulary by learning new moon words

Bill Casselman

Engraved tarot or astrology card depicting the moon (der Mond in German)

At the Wording Desk

New Moon Words like Lunain

& Old Moon Words

like Epigee, Apogee & Syzygy

Moon Words you may not know like Lunain & Details of Monday’s SUPERMOON

A writer whose name I have lost once wrote that the first poem in the first language ever spoken was “O, Moon.”

Why, you may wisely ask, do the English words moon and month both stem from the same Proto-Indo-European root? The thirty-day earth month approximates the lunar cycle of waxing and waning. Throughout history, in some of the oldest calendars, these regular phases of the moon have made it a good timekeeper. Yes, it was superseded by the more accurate solar calendar. But the moon’s regularity gave the Romans their words for measure and menstrual and menstruate whose root meaning is “go through the monthly moon time.”

English named the moon after a month and Monday is moon-day, or, in the oldest English we know, Monandæg. French named Monday after the moon too, so French lundi is derived from later Latin Lunae dies or Lunis dies ‘day of the moon’. Luna is the Latin word for moon. All the Romance languages borrowed that Latin phrase. Compare Spanish lunes and Italian lunedì. Hellenistic Greek copied Latin too and called Monday ἡμέρα σελήνης hemera selenes ‘day of the moon.’

Lunar Etymology
The Latin word for moon luna is closely related to other Roman words that mean ‘bright light’ such as lux and lumen ‘radiance or amount of light’ as in the English words illuminate and luminous. Lux is cognate with the English noun light and with the Greek adjective for ‘white’ leukos.

Hematic Matters
Leukos gives English medical words like leucocyte ‘white blood cell’ and leukemia, a blood or bone cancer with abnormal increase in white blood cells from a German medical word, itself made up of leuk-, leukos Greek ‘white’ + -emia medical suffix meaning ‘diseased condition of the blood’ from haima Greek ‘blood.’ Compare other blood words like hemoglobin and the tricky anemia originally meaning ‘lack of blood’ = a Greek ‘not’ + -n- called “nu euphonic” or “nu movable” (a letter n inserted into a word to make it easier to pronounce) +-emia from haima Greek ‘blood.’ Nu is the Greek name for the letter n. Another scientific word with nu euphonic is anaerobic = a Greek ‘not’ + -n- nu euphonic + aer Greek ‘air’ + bios Greek ‘life,’ an adjective applied chiefly to microorganisms which can function without oxygen.

In the armory of modern kitchen utensils, a mezzaluna is a knife used for chopping herbs. It has a blade curved like a half moon (Italian mezza luna). Hachoir is its French name. It is similar to the Inuit chopping blade, the ulu.


Lunatics & Lovers
There are a number of lunar words we shall not cover here because their meanings are well known. Most know that madmen were first called lunatics because ancient physicians thought they were moon-mad, driven insane by the moon.

There is a glorious NASA photograph entitled “Earthrise seen from the lunain.” Lunain was a new word coined in 1971 when humans landed on the moon. Lunain was the lunar surface, as terrain is the earthly one. I though it a lovely word for the cold, star-lit countenance of the moon. But no one else did. And so it wisped away and died, in obsolescent desuetude. O regrettable discontinuance! Poor abandoned wordlet.

I like the sound of this adjective, drawn from new Latin sublunaris ‘taking place under the moon’ from sub Latin ‘under’ + lunaris Latin adjective ‘pertaining to the moon.’ Although sublunary (pronounced sub-LOON-ary) began with meanings like ‘influenced by the moon,’ it came to be used—as the long tongue of English grew fond of the word—to mean ‘referring to anything that happened on earth,’ then with a pejoration of that sense, sublunary became synonymous with ‘gross,’ ‘earthly’ and ‘mundane.’ I always think it fits best in phrases (my own) like sublunary frolic, or sublunary antics that comprise the cloddish dance of life. In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621 CE), Robert Burton spoke of “sublunary devils. . . fiery, aerial, terrestrial, watery and subterranean.”

Silver was Luna
In the annals of alchemy, ancient cauldron-stirrers gave the names of the seven alchemical metals the names of the seven ancient planets, so alchemists dubbed Sol the sun Gold; Luna the moon was Silver, Venus was Copper, Jupiter Tin, Saturn Lead, Mars Iron and Mercury, of course, was Quick-silver.

Don’t Trip over Those Moonbeams!
How many vampire movies feature a nubile sleepwalker, a callipygous cutie, her nightie of diaphanous chiffon abillow in a night breeze, as she lunambulates down Dracula’s chill corridor. Lunambulism is a rare and delightful sleepwalk supposedly caused by the moon, from luna Latin ‘moon’ + ambulare Latin ‘to walk.’ So Michael Jackson might have used it to name his moonwalk. Callipygous or callipygian means ‘having shapely buttocks’ from kalos Greek ‘beautiful’ + puge ‘buttocks, rump.’ Greek καλλίπuγος kallipugos was the epithet of a famous statue of Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, to whom the sculptor had given a superior posterior. Diaphanous is a fancy synonym for transparent, from...  medieval Latin diaphanus < Greek diaphanes < diaphainein ‘to show through’ < dia- Greek ‘through’ + phainein Greek ‘to show.’

Luna Moth
I will never forget the summer night of my luna moth, the surprise of my first sighting in Dundas County, Ontario. One teenage midnight I was bolting my uncle’s barn doors. Quietly a phosphorescent lime glow loomed in the periphery of my vision. There on the night-black weathered wood of the barn-side, key-lit by moonlight, spread large moth wings, strangely green. American writer Annie Dillard, in her cautious hymn to nature, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote a true description: “Luna moths are those fragile ghost moths, fairy moths, whose five-inch wings are swallow-tailed, a pastel green bordered in silken lavender.” Actias luna, its zoological name, was named after the moon because of two large vaguely crescent-moon-shaped translucent spots on their tapered hindwings, meant to look like large animal eyes and so frighten off moth-hungry predators. The luna moth boasts the broadest wing span and the serenest beauty of all North American moths.

At The Eclose
And we shall add a neat little moth verb, to eclose, a back formation from the English noun eclosion ‘emergence of an insect from its pupal encasement.’ Near the onset of the twentieth century, English entomologists borrowed the word from French éclosion ‘hatching from an egg’ < éclore ‘to hatch,’ ultimately from a Vulgar Latin verb not attested *exclaudere ‘to hatch out’ = ex Latin ‘out of’ + claudere Latin ‘to close,’ but in etymological reality, a pronunciation change caused a spelling change, for éclore actually stems from excludere Latin ‘to hatch, drive out, exclude.’

Big Moon Monday
So, my moon and luna words having pupated, I must flutter away. But I remind you that a supermoon (very large) occurs early Monday morning, November 14, at approximately 8:52 a.m. ET. On the east coast the moon will have set just after 8 a.m., so the eastern coast of America won't get the complete effect. But dwellers beside the American Pacific Ocean will get the ganze megillah (full experience), so to speak.

A Couple of Supermoon Technical Words in Astronomy
Once a month the moon is at a position known as perigee, its closest to earth, and apogee, its farthest from the earth.

A syzygy, a lining up of celestial bodies, particularly the sun, Earth and moon occurs rarely. When it happens, earthlings get a full moon. Now, when the syzygy and the perigee coincide, we get the so-called supermoon.

The moon’s perigee coincides with a full moon. The perigee is the point in the orbit of the moon around the earth when the moon is closest to the earth. Perigee is from Greek περί peri ‘around, round about, near to, up next to’ + Greek γάϊος gaios or γεῖος geios ‘of the earth’ from Greek γαῖα gaia or γῆ ge ‘the earth,’ an etymon that appears in dozens of English words like geography, geodesic, Gaia ‘the earth mother or earth goddess,’ geometry and geode. Peri is the ultimate prefixal etymon in words like perimeter and periphrastic.

The opposite of perigee is apogee, when its orbit places the moon farthest from the earth. Apogee < French apogée < Latin apogæum < Greek ἀπόγαιον > ἀπό apo ‘off, away from’ + Greek γάϊος gaios ‘of the earth.’ It is said: the moon is in apogee or at apogee.

Good lunar viewing! or Happy Selenoscopy! (Greek, ‘moon viewing’) but I made the word selenoscopy up as a playful neology.

Bill Casselman, Sunday, November 13, 2016

Copyright William Gordon Casselman 2016

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