Fun_People Archive
14 Oct
The seven Blue Moons

Date: Fri, 14 Oct 94 12:44:24 PDT
To: Fun_People
Subject: The seven Blue Moons

Forwarded-by: lanih@info.Berkeley.EDU (J. Lani Herrmann)
Forwarded-by: Alix Herrmann Scheurer <>
Forwarded-by: Bob Riddle <>
From: The Great Plains Planetarian,
	(newsletter of the Great Plains  Planetarium Association)
 Blue Moon?
 Philip Hiscock 
 If you pay attention to the sky you'll know that tomorrow
 night there will be a full moon. Something to howl at while
 you're down on the waterfront, if you need it. Modern folklore
 has it that full moons make for better parties and higher
 booking rates at mental hospitals, but the studies I've heard
 about seem to deny the relationship.
 At least once this week you have probably heard through the
 media that the old year (for purists, the decade of the
 eighties) is going out on a blue moon. People have been saying
 that "according to folklore" a second moon in a calendar month
 is a "blue moon." So, they say, this is the origin of the
 phrase "once in a blue moon." Don't believe them!  "Once in a
 blue moon" is old, about 150 years old, but the age of
 the two-full-moons-in-a-month meaning of "blue moon" is less
 than ten years.  The older meaning may be wishy-washy and the
 newer one solid and technical, but don't let anyone tell you
 they have replaced one with the other.
 It's not rare to see two full moons in a month. Because the
 moon and our calendar are not in sync and all the months but
 February are longer than the moon's synodical cycle, it
 happens about seven times in every nineteen years. That's
 every thirty-three months on average. Months have different
 lengths, so the phenomenon moves around a bit. In 1999
 there will even be two "blue" moons. If you think about it,
 it's a little like getting paid every second Friday and
 finding some months you get paid three times instead of twice.
 Meaning is a slippery substance. The phrase "blue moon" has
 been around a long time, well over 400 years, but during that
 time its meaning has shifted around a lot. I have counted six
 different meanings which have been carried by the term, and at
 least four of them are still current today. So that makes
 discussion of the term a little complicated.
 The earliest references to the term are in a phrase remarkably
 like early references to "green cheese." Both were used as
 examples of obvious absurdities about which there could be no
 argument. Four hundred years ago, if someone said, "He would
 argue the moon was blue," the average sixteenth century man
 would take it the way we take, "He'd argue that black is
 white." This understanding of a blue moon being absurd (the
 first meaning) led eventually to a second meaning, that of
 "never." To say that something would happen when the moon
 turned blue was like saying that it would happen on Tib's Eve
 (at least before Tib got a day near Christmas assigned to
 But of course, there are examples of the moon actually turning
 blue; that's the third meaning - the moon visually appearing
 blue. When the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa exploded in 1883,
 its dust turned sunsets green and the moon blue all around the
 world for the best part of two years. In 1927 a late monsoon
 in India set up conditions for a blue moon.  And the moon here
 in Newfoundland was turned blue in 1951 when huge forest fires
 in Alberta threw smoke particles up into the sky. Even by
 the nineteenth century it was clear that although visually
 blue moons were rare, they did happen from time to time. So
 the phrase "once in a blue moon" came about. It meant then
 exactly what it means today - that an event was fairly
 infrequent, but not quite regular enough to pinpoint. That's
 meaning number four, and today it is still the main one.
 I know of six songs which use "blue moon" as a symbol of
 sadness and loneliness. In half of them the poor crooner's
 moon turns to gold when he gets his love at the end of the
 song. That's meaning number five: check your old Elvis Presley
 or Bill Monroe records for more information.
 Finally, in the 1980s, comes the most recent meaning of blue
 moon - the second full moon in a month. I first became aware
 of the new meaning of the term in late May 1988 when it seemed
 all the radio stations and newspapers were carrying an item on
 this interesting bit of "old folklore." At the MUN Folklore &
 Language Archive we get calls from all over, from people
 wondering about bits of folklore, and in that month I got
 calls about blue moons. You see there were two full moons that
 month.  There hasn't been such a month since then, until this
 month. December 1990 has full moons on the 2nd and the 31st.
 In 1988 I searched high and low for a reference to the term
 having this meaning, or for any other term used to describe
 two moons in a single calendar month. But it was all in vain.
 There just seemed to be no history to this term. Through that
 research I uncovered the information on other meanings of
 "blue moon." But not this blue moon, meaning number six.
 This month, with the new "blue moon" coming on, I started
 getting calls again and I searched harder this time. I had
 already exhausted all the usual sources of historical and
 astronomical dictionaries, indexes of proverbial sayings and
 the like. A brand new edition of the huge Oxford English
 Dictionary had come out in the meantime, but even that seemed
 to have nothing on this new usage. A new tack was called for.
 Almost every day I use computer networks to contact other
 folklorists around the world (in fact I send this column all
 around the world each week on one of the  networks), so I
 started with them. But no one could give me an earlier use of
 the term than the 1988 wire stories. I then turned to
 other computer networks, for scientists and especially
 astronomers. Still no luck. "Blue moon" seemed to be a truly
 modern piece of folklore, masquerading as something old.
 Then I remembered that the term was a question in one of the
 Trivial Pursuit boxes, the "Genus II edition," which was
 published in 1986.  Trivial Pursuit is a fine company for
 scholars - they keep all their files and they can tell you the
 source of any bit of information in their games.  Yes, they
 told me, that question came from a certain children's "Facts
 and Records" book, published in 1985. Where the authors of
 that book got it, no one seems to know.
 The term, used this way, must have been very, very local
 before the publication of the children's book, so local that
 it was never written down by amateur or professional
 astronomers, or by the newspapers which might have been
 searched by dictionary makers. It certainly was very rare.
  Perhaps it was even made up by the authors of the children's
 book as a safeguard against plagiarism. This is sometimes done
 in order to be able to prove in a lawcourt that a later work
 has stolen from your own - how else would they have gotten
 something which you invented? Well, if this is what the
 authors did, they have lost out because the term immediately 
 entered the folklore of the modern world and it has become as
 living a meaning of the term "blue moon" as any of the earlier
 ones. Since it has a kind of technical meaning which most of
 the earlier meanings lacked, it will probably last a whole lot
 longer, too. "Old folklore" it is not, but real folklore it
 Philip Hiscock is Archivist at the Memorial University of
 Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive.
------------------------------- (from another source! BR)

[The seventh Blue Moon... -psl]
From: Mark Schaffer, Department of Chemical Engineering, Villanova 

Blue Moon:
 1.5  oz. Gin
 .75 oz. Blue Curacao
 Stir with ice and strain into cocktail glass.
 Add a twist of lemon peel.
Not all that rare, actually.  Just ask a bartender for one.  :-)

[=] © 1994 Peter Langston []