Jewish World Review Jan. 30, 2003 / 27 Shevat, 5763

Richard Lederer

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Consumer Reports

Twice in a Blue Moon | To say that the moon is blue originally meant to believe in a fantasy. An old proverb, recorded as far back as 1528, tells us:

Yf they saye the mone is blewe

We must believe that it is true.

At first, then, it was ridiculous to think of the moon as blue, and a blue moon was as absurd as one made of green cheese. When the expression "till a blue moon" came on the scene in the early 19th century, it still meant "never" rather than "rarely."

Nowadays "once in a blue moon" translates best into W. S. Gilbert's famous line from "H.M.S. Pinafore": "What, never? Well, hardly ever." Perhaps that slight but crucial change in meaning was influenced by the observation that, on rare, unusually clear nights, the moon does seem to have a blue tinge. Others say that very special conditions -- ice crystals, cloud banks, or dust high in the air -- can turn the moon blue.

Words wander wondrously, and during the 20th century "blue moon" transmogrified yet again. A full moon comes every 29 and 1/2 days, when the earth's natural satellite is opposite the sun in the sky. Thus, any month except February can see two full moons. Still, two full moons in a single month occur approximately every 32 months. Gradually, the label "blue moon" became attached to that second full moon.

And now the paradox of paradoxes: Incredibly, after a February of no full moon, another blue moon will occur just two months from now, on March 31. It truly is only once in a blue moon that we have two blue moons in the same year, let alone only two months apart.

Astrologers, vampire novelists and others fascinated by mysticism hold that the moon exerts a special pull not only on the tides, but on human affairs. Indeed, the word lunatic descends from the Latin luna, because it was believed that recurrent attacks of insanity were brought about by the varying phases of the moon. Prolonged exposure to the moon rendered one "moonstruck."

Lorentz Hart and Richard Rodgers may well have benefited from such superstitions. Their song "Blue Moon" (1934), a rewrite of several less successful versions and titles, became one of their first great hits, both endearing and enduring. Elvis Presley's 1961 recording of it sold more than a million discs.

Blue moon,
You saw me standing alone,
Without a dream in my heart,
Without a love of my own.

Each of the following clues yields a word or phrase that contains the word "moon." Shoot for the moon and get them all right. Answers repose at the end of this column.

1. a trip taken by newlyweds
2. working two jobs
3. illegally distilled liquor
4. to spend in idle reverie
5. sweet treat
6. star baseball pitcher
7. Cher movie
8. Andy Williams song
9. James Bond novel
10. John Steinbeck novel
11. W. Somerset Maugham novel
12. Wilkie Collins novel
13. a day of the week

1. honeymoon 2. moonlighting 3. moonshine 4. to moon 5. Moon Pie 6. Blue Moon Odom 7. Moonstruck 8. "Moon River" 9. Moonraker 10. The Moon is Down 11. The Moon and Sixpence 12. The Moonstone 13. Monday ("moon day")

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


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06/20/02: George Orwell is looking at you
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05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
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04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2003, Richard Lederer