Blue Moon Bloops

According to almost every online source that commented on it, the round disk in the sky on the last day of 2009 was a “blue moon,” a term commonly used for the second full moon in any calendar month.

Commonly—and erroneously.

The internet offers near-instant access to information. It is ironic that in some cases this easy of access decreases accuracy.

Wikipedia explains the term clearly and correctly:

A blue moon is a full moon that is not timed to the regular monthly pattern. Most years have twelve full moons which occur approximately monthly, but in addition to those twelve full lunar cycles, each solar calendar year contains an excess of roughly eleven days compared to the lunar year. The extra days accumulate, so that every two or three years (7 times in the 19-year Metonic cycle), there is an extra full moon. The extra moon is called a “blue moon.” Different definitions place the “extra” moon at different times.

• In calculating the dates for Lent and Easter, the Clergy identify the Lent Moon. It is thought that historically when the moon’s timing was too early, they named an earlier moon as a “betrayer moon” (belewe moon), thus the Lent moon came at its expected time.

• Folklore gave each moon a name according to its time of year. A moon which came too early had no folk name – and was called a blue moon – bringing the correct seasonal timings for future moons.

• The Farmers’ Almanac defined blue moon as an extra full moon that occurred in a season; one season was normally three full moons. If a season had four full moons, then the third full moon was named a blue moon.

But in its March 1946 issue, Sky & Telescope magazine unintentionally set the record wrong, misinterpreting previous definitions and stating that a blue moon was the term given to the second full moon in a single calendar month. The new-and-wrong definition caught on, and even thought the magazine eventually corrected its error (in its May 1999 issue and again in a good-hearted, self-effacing press release two days ago), over that half-century, the new, easier-to explain definition had almost completely supplanted the old.

That’s the way of language; it changes.

It’s me replaces It’s I.

I’m  like… replaces I said…

Blue moon gets a new definition.

So on New Year’s Eve, this wrong new definition shone around the world.

Singapore’s Straits Times got it right: “The original meaning of ‘blue moon’ was the third full moon in a season with four instead of the usual three.”

The Jerusalem Post went with the new definition: “But a real blue moon – not a reference to the moon’s tint but designating its appearance a second time in a single calendar month – was visible Thursday night where there were no clouds – along with a partial lunar eclipse that could be sighted throughout the Middle East.”

The Times of India noted correctly, “It is basically a calendar event and has no astronomical importance as such.”

Some of this New Year’s references to blue moon were benign, even charming:

A segment on Omaha’s WOWT-TV included, “It happens once roughly every two and a half years. Thirteen moons in a twelve month period—when two fall in the same calendar month, it’s called a blue moon. And the saying “once in a blue moon” refers to a rarity—something that doesn’t happen very often….And just before midnight a wedding.”


Some were educative.

Richard Brill, writing in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, noted correctly that “A full moon on New Year’s Eve is rare, but when it happens it is always a ‘blue moon.’”

Others were simply inaccurate, misleading, or both.

The Christian Science Monitor mis-cited the initial Sky & Telescope article: “But in 1943 [sic], Sky and Telescope Magazine erroneously wrote that the second full moon in any calendar month was called a blue moon. The label stuck and is still used today.”

China View got the definition entirely wrong. In a caption to this photo, it wrote: “The sunset is reflected on the wing of a commercial airliner as the full moon rises over clouds in the horizon over Athens December 31, 2009. For only the second time in nearly two decades [sic], Earth is illuminated by a “Blue Moon,” the name given to the second full moon appearing in a single month.”

NASA, as should be expected, referenced the Sky & Telescope error-and-restatement correctly, but blundered when it stepped down from its ethereal bailiwick into song lyrics: “In music, [blue moon is] often a symbol of melancholy. According to one Elvis tune, it means “without a love of my own.” On the bright side, he croons in another song, a simple kiss can turn a Blue Moon pure gold.”

A quick search will show that those two musical interpretations occur in the same immensely popular Rodgers & Hart song (Blue Moon), recorded variously by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, and scores of others, but made most popular by the Marcels’ in their #1 do-wop version (1961).

Do the research. More frequently than once in a blue moon, the internet will be wrong.

But if the tune is good…sing along!

Photo credits: Blue moon---canyonhiker (who admits to PhotoShopping it blue); Jetliner---Xinhua/Reuters Photo
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