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Issue 35

April 5, 1999
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

Blue moon

We don't normally return to topics which we have already covered but, once in a blue moon, new evidence turns up.

Regular readers will be aware that one of us (Mike) is British and the other (Melanie) is a bloody yank.  When Mike came to the 9905bluemoon01_big.jpg (12013 bytes)U.S. he learned lots of new words and discovered that some familiar words had quite different meanings on this side of the pond.  While he was well aware of the phrase a blue moon (meaning an indeterminate but extremely long period of time), he was perplexed to discover that in the U.S. it also means "the second full moon to occur within one calendar month".  This, he was assured by all and sundry, was its traditional usage.  Well, Mike has finally uncovered the scandalous truth behind this allegation and to all those who once told him that this is traditional he now says, "Ha!".  (And he means it to sting.)

It now transpires (thanks to some sterling investigation by Philip Hiscock) that this "tradition" originated in a couple of articles in the July 1943 and March 1946 issues of Sky and Telescope magazine.  It seems that these articles took their information from the Maine Farmer's Almanac for 1937 and completely misinterpreted the information therein.  Maybe the penny hasn't quite dropped yet so we'll say that again (and this time we'll write slowly in case you can't read fast).  The "second full moon to occur within one calendar month" is not traditional.  It was not called a blue moon until very recently and that is only because of an error.

There are several (genuine) traditions of naming each full moon of the year and some of these names (such as "Harvest Moon" and "Hunter's Moon") are quite widely know.  The Maine almanac gave names to all the "moons" of the year but called the second moon of each season the Blue Moon.  This was, apparently, just a local, Maine, usage and has no bearing on its general usage.  Also, in case you are not confused yet, the "seasons" referred to in the almanac are not those generally recognized by astronomers but are based on the ecclesiastical calendar (see Spotlight, Issue 34) and a curious concept which goes by the comical name of "the fictitious mean Sun".

Those with clear skies and an accurate calendar may have noticed that January and March of this year both had two full moons.  The last year to have two blue moons was 1915.


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Tony Hill:

I was playing the delightful (and, at times, frustrating) game of Balderdash with my four children. We chanced upon several obscurantisms, as is frequently the case with that game. The special one I wish to ask about is beestings (pronounced bee stings, just as it looks). The definition given was "the first milk given by a cow after giving birth to a calf". My only conjecture is that it is quite unrelated to our apian friends and their defense mechanisms. I would value any illumination you could, or would care to, impart. Thanks for a great site.

This is, indeed, a fascinating word. What on earth does cow’s milk have to do with bees and stings? As it is specifically the first milk produced after giving birth, is it thought to contain some substance which feels like bee stings to the lips? After all, there is the term bee-stung which is used to describe very full, sensuous lips on a woman. Or does beestings refer to this first milk's ability to protect one from the pain of a bee sting?

Well, Mr. Hill, you are correct in guessing that the word has nothing at all to do with bees or stings. Beestings is a collective singular noun which means "colostrum", or the first substance, not exactly milk, which is produced from the mammary glands of a lactating female, usually a cow, for a few days after giving birth.  It occasionally applies also to other livestock species.  About 1000 AD there is a series of synonyms recorded by Aelfric: "Colustrum, býsting, thicce meolc" or "colostrom, beestings, thick milk". The word doesn't appear in the record again until the late 15th century, with the same meaning. By 1574 we have beestings characterized as "very dangerous". In 1757 we find a reference indicating that "Roman writers on husbandry forbid the colastra or beastings to be given to the calf" and this belief that new-born livestock should be denied colostrum is noted as late as 1847. However, it was in the mid-19th century that the powerful immune-enhancing properties of colostrum were recognized, and today it is common knowledge that consumption of colostrum by newborns is very important to their health. Interestingly, there are references sprinkled throughout the record indicating that custards and other dishes made from beestings were well enjoyed. Another synonym for the word is "green milk".

Beestings comes from the word beest, which means the same thing, and the latter's cognates are found only among Germanic languages, all with the same meaning. The Old English form was béost. Beyond that, nothing is known of this word's derivation. If you are thinking that the word is related to English beast, think again.


From David LoTempio:

I am a grant writer for not-for-profit agency, and I run into a lot of jargon.  Recently, I was fortunate to work with a peer from another agency that focused on providing services to the Hispanic population living in my city.  While putting together a draft proposal, we both noticed that our sources of  information couldn't agree on whether to use Hispanic or Latino to describe an ethnic population.  Which is more correct?

Well, it rather depends on what you mean.  Latino is the Spanish word for "Latin" and is commonly used to refer to anyone from Latin America.  Hispanic is a high-falutin way of saying "Spanish".  Thus they do not necessarily mean the same thing.  According to the dictionary, Hispanic means "of, or from, Spain".  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, however, a Spaniard is not Hispanic but Caucasian.  ("Aaargh!" - Mike)

If you take a look at a map of South America, you will see that almost half of the continent is taken up by one country: Brazil.  The official language of Brazil is not Spanish but Portuguese.  This means that while Brazilians may be Latino, they are certainly not Hispanic.  (If you need the Portuguese equivalent to Hispanic, it is Lusitanian, by the way.)   To further confuse matters, there are enclaves of Dutch, French and English speakers in Latin America, too.


From Phil Sheridan:

Why is Good Friday called good? Christ's crucifixion is hardly good.

That depends on how you look at it. Some Christians believe it is good as it is part of the key to their salvation. However, the term's derivation is not dependant upon one's point of view. The good in Good Friday comes from God, just as the good in good-bye.   In the late 13th century it was spelled guode Friday, and by the early part of the 16th century it was good Friday.



From David Lee:

I'm interested in finding out the origin of the term Orient (i.e., Oriental). Is this name based on the literal translation of "China" (Middle Kingdom) or is it of another origin? I've had several debates with different people about this term because many feel it is neither an accurate nor proper description of people of Asian ancestry.

First of all, we need to explain to the small number of our readers who do not speak Chinese that the Chinese term for China is jung guo (that's chung kuo to those who use the Wade-Giles transliteration scheme) which means "Central Country".  Having got that out of the way, we can now tell you that jung guo has nothing to do with orient.

To most Americans, the orient is China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam; to many Britons it means India and Pakistan.  One hundred years ago it meant Egypt.  The reason for this is in the etymology - the original meaning of oriental was "the direction of the sunrise" (from the Latin oriens "rising").  Thus, in The Knight's Tale (c. 1386) Chaucer could write "And firy Phebus riseth vp so brighte That al the Orient laugheth of the lighte" and his readers would understand this to mean "the sun lit up the eastern sky".

Once orient is understood to mean "east" the connection to the verb to orient (that's to orientate if you're a Brit) becomes apparent.  Ancient Roman maps put the east at the top so, to a Roman, to orient meant to know which way was up.  Incidentally, Chinese maps place the south at the top.

We do not consider oriental to be necessarily offensive when used to mean Chinese but it does seem silly to those of us who live in California.  China isn't the Far East, it's the Near West.



From Luke Putzler:

I was hoping you might be able to tell me what the origin of the word Caucasian is. I am thinking it has something to do with the Caucasus Mountains that separate Asia and Europe.

Yes indeed, caucasian means "of or belonging to the region of the Caucasus".  In American (but not British) English it is also a racial category.   A writer called Blumenbach  (c. 1800) thought that the "white" race of mankind had its origin in the region of the Caucasus Mountains but modern anthropologists have rejected this notion.  Indeed, most anthropologists now question the validity of the concept of "a race".



From John Meidell:

Why do Blacks say ax instead of ask?

Why do so many of our recent queries have to do with race?   Changing the position of letters within a word is very common in all languages and is called metathesis.  It usually occurs to replace a difficult consonant cluster with one which is easier to pronounce.  This is why so many Anglo-Americans say "asteriks" instead of "asterisk".

While some African-Americans do indeed say ax, not all do.  Conversely, English-speaking black people are not confined to North America and we have yet to hear a British black person say ax.

The simple answer to your question is that African-Americans learned English from white people who said ax.  You may be surprised to learn that ax is just as valid as ask.  At least, it is just as old.  The verb to ask comes from an Old English word which was written either as ascian or as acsian. In fact, the two earliest records of this word (both from around 1000 A.D.) are in the acsian form.  Ax remained an accepted form of ask until the 16th century.



From Shiela Reese:

I always write one and other when writing about a relationship between two or more people or things. My husband laughs every time he sees it. He says it should be one another. Which is correct?

Actually, neither is (strictly speaking) correct but one another is the accepted form.  When we say "they spoke to one another" we should really be saying "they spoke one to another".  For some unexplained reason, one to another became to one another some time in the mid-16th century.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.

Quotes revisited

This is only a trivial matter but it is something which we have to consider each week.   While proof-reading the current issue we had to decide - does the period go inside or outside a set of quotation marks?  To make it a little clearer, here is an example -

When we say "they spoke to one another" we should really be saying "they spoke one to another".

Placing the period outside of the quotation marks like this seems perfectly logical to us but the commonly accepted practice is to place it inside, thus -

When we say "they spoke to one another" we should really be saying "they spoke one to another."

There is a reason for this illogical convention.  In the days of printing from metal type, periods which followed quotation marks were vulnerable to damage and could be lost if a page of type were over-used.  This ceased to be a consideration with the introduction of offset lithography and in this age of internet publishing the rule is totally irrelevant.  Rules are tedious at best; outmoded rules are preposterous!


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