Naming the full moon
Worm moon. Super blood moon. This weekend’s blue moon. Earth’s next-door neighbor has some lush nicknames.
Many names for full moons come from Native American and other folklore around the world, with each full moon generating more than one name. For example, the April 30th full moon can be called the Pink Moon, Egg Moon, or Fish Moon. None of those names has to do with the appearance of the moon. Rather, they come from events associated with that time of year — the appearance of pink wildflowers, the beginning of egg-laying season, and the movement of fish upstream.
Ellen Wahi, retired teacher and author of “Full Moon Lore,” was working with third graders as a reading specialist when she began collecting and writing about names for the full moon, such as Wolf Moon (January), Flower Moon (May), and Beaver Moon (November). “Children are fascinated with the natural world,” she said. And these names, which originally functioned as an oral calendar, also serve well as teaching tools. Sap rises in trees in March (thus the Sap Moon), for example, and sturgeon are more easily found and fished in August (thus the Sturgeon Moon).
One of the most ear-catching lunar terms is “supermoon.” Noah Petro, research scientist and deputy project scientist for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a robot currently orbiting the moon, said that this term for the closest full moon of the year originated in astrology. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first known use is from astrologer Richard Noelle in a 1979 issue of Horoscope magazine: “Supermoon: the deadly moon tide.”
Petro said the technical term for a supermoon — “syzygy perigee” — isn’t used much even by scientists. Also called “perigee syzygy,” the term “syzygy” refers to the alignment of Earth, moon, and sun, while “perigee” indicates the moon is at its closest to earth.
The opposite of the supermoon is the mini-moon: the yearly full moon most distant from the earth. Google “mini-moon,” though, and you’ll find many more examples of a trendy meaning referring to a scaled-back, lowkey honeymoon. The mini-moon is also called a “micro-moon” and can combine with other moon terms: “strawberry mini-moon,” for instance.
“Blue moon,” despite including a color, usually has nothing to do with the shade of the moon. The two primary meanings are a second full moon in a month (for lunar enthusiasts) or any rare event (for the rest of us). The metaphorical sense has been popping up since the early 1800s. A use from The Athenaeum magazine in 1833 demonstrates today’s common idiom: “We are no advocates for the eternal system of producing foreign operas to the exclusion of the works of English composers, but once in a blue moon such a thing may be allowed.”
The vividness of such terms helps scientists inform the public, just as they help teachers like Wahi educate children. The evocative term “blood moon” does refer to the moon’s color — though Petro said the actual color is more of a “rusty orange” than blood color. He described a blood moon’s shade as the “projection of all the Earth’s sunrises and sunsets onto the moon.”
Such terms are even more headline-grabbing when they are combined: as in the super blood blue moon, a rare event described by NASA as a “lunar trifecta” that occurred on January 31.
Perhaps our moon monikers are due for a reboot: Hangover Moon for the first full moon after New Years? Super Bowl Moon? Independence Moon in July? Petro has a suggestion for the full moon closest to July 20, the date of the moon landing. To honor Neil Armstrong, why not call it Neil’s Moon?
Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.