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Word roots and routes: moon

© BRAND X PICTURESNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

Throughout the ages, people have gazed at the moon in its changing manifestations, worshipped it, invested it with magical powers or human characteristics, and woven it into myths and stories. In some languages it even gives its name to one of the days of the week – Monday, in English. If you look at the full moon on a clear night and with a vivid imagination, you might be able to see the man in the moon, whose features are formed by the dark outlines of craters. On the other hand, the moon is often personified in poetic language as female – e.g. “The Sun will run his orbit, and the Moon Her circle” (from a poem by Tennyson).

Moon-gazing also had – and still has, for some human communities – the practical purpose of keeping track of the progress of time, and a closely related word is month, the length of one cycle from new moon to half-moon to full moon and back to new moon (although the twelve months of the year which we are familiar with don’t correspond precisely to this cycle.)

Another related word, referring to a type of monthly cycle in a woman’s body, is menstruation, and it seems likely that moon itself, the ancient calendar in the sky, is related to measure.

From our earthly perspective, the moon appears to grow from nothing to a full circle and then shrink back to nothing again during the course of a month. Wax and wane are ancient verbs meaning grow and lessen, respectively. They are now little used except in connection with the moon, which waxes during the first half of its cycle and wanes during the second. (Another relatively common use of wax is in the expression wax lyrical, i.e. grow, or become, lyrical.)

The word crescent was originally an adjective meaning simply ‘growing’. A related word, imported from Italian, is crescendo, a passage of music in which the volume gradually grows. But crescent became associated with the characteristic shape of the moon when it is either waxing or waning, and is now used as a noun to refer to that shape. It’s often used, for example, in the names of streets which follow a curving route – e.g. Birch Crescent. And a croissant is a familiar crescent-shaped object whose name is a French version of crescent.

From the Latin word for moon, ‘luna’, we have the adjective lunar. You can say, for example: the surface of the moon, the moon‘s surface or the lunar surface. And from the same origin we have the noun lunatic, originally a person who was thought to suffer cycles of insanity dependent on the lunar cycle of waxing and waning. Loony is a colloquial and often humorous, but also often offensive, version of lunatic.

Next in this series: sun

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Jonathan Marks

1 Comment

  • Thanks, Jonathan…fascinating as always. “Wax” is an odd one: it’s one of the verbs (meaning “become”) which takes an adjective complement, along the same lines as “go crazy”, “turn nasty”, “get mad with” and so on. But in this case the range of adjectives is very narrow. The one you mention, “wax lyrical”, is by far the most frequent verb+adjective combination – almost a cliché. But there are a few other fairly common ones, all in similar semantic territory, including: eloquent, poetic, nostalgic, and philosophical. The one other regular combination is “wax indignant”, which may link back to the 17th century King James Bible, where the God of the Old Testament was frequently angry, and there are numerous sentences like this one from the Book of Exodus: “And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, Lord, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people?”.

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