Lunary language and lore
2016/03/26 Leave a comment
This past week brought not only a full moon (Span. luna llena, or, in a graceful Latin form, plenilunio), but also a penumbral lunar eclipse. And as far removed as most of us city folk are from the country and the spell the night sky used to cast on humanity, our companion orb has not lost the power to stun us with its beauty.
Human language testifies to the profound imprint that Earth’s satellite has made on human consciousness. We’ll look very briefly at some of that testimony, mainly in English and Spanish.
The odd chance that Sun (Sol) and Moon (Luna) appear the same size in the earthly sky, has surely reinforced human cultures’ seeing them as a pair representing male/female, gold/silver, night/day. The moon-female tie runs deep: the lunar phases find an echo in woman’s menstrual cycle.
The moon has its day: Engl. “Monday” (Ger. Montag, Dan. mandag), Span. lunes (Fr. lundi, It. lunedì). It also gives us “month”; Span. mes is from Lat. mensis, a root visible in words like “bi-mensual.”
Another link: moon and madness, yields Engl. “lunatic” and Span. Lunático. But English informalizes it with “looney” and “looney tunes” (from the old cartoon series); “looney bin” is a mental hospital.
English also uses “moon” for “to languish sadly” (as one pining for a lost or unrequited love), which is a slightly archaic usage, and “to show one’s bared buttocks,” which isn’t.
Sp. lunar (loo-NAR) is also “birthmark,” once thought caused by the Moon’s influence, or “polka dot” on clothing. Spanish calls a landing on the Moon an alunizaje (by analogy to aterrizaje on Earth).
“Moonlight” (Sp. claro de luna, Fr. claire de lune) has a power over young lovers, long understood (and abetted) by poets and songwriters.
Samuel Johnson’s Sermon XII movingly uses the lovely, archaic word “sublunary” for “earthly”—urging his listeners “to bid farewell to sublunary vanities” and instead “with pure heart and steady faith to ‘fear God and keep his commandments.’”
¡Buenas palabras! Good words!
An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Nov. 27-Dec. 3, 2015 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 158 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”. Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (Aamerican Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).