Famous Sayings: #30 — ‘Once in a Blue Moon’

October 2, 2016

This only happens once in a blue moon.


The first time I heard the phrase “Once in a blue moon,” I was a bit confused. But I think I still kind grasped the meaning.

Now, By all accounts, “once in a blue moon” refers to a rare occurrence. But are “blue moons” rare and why do we use that term?

Where Did this Famous Saying Originate?

According to Gary Martin (at The Phrase Finder), the saying essentially has its origins in Medieval England. However, the first known use of the term in print came in 1528.

Martin lists William Barlow, who was the Bishop of Chichester, as having wrote the Treatyse of the Buryall of the Masse. Here is a line from the work

Yf they saye the mone is belewe,
We must beleve that it is true

However, Emily Upton says that William Roy and Jeremy Barlowe wrote a pamphlet in the same year. She might be alluding to the same source because she cites the same lines. She also speaks of the dialogue between two characters may have been a reference to priests at the time. Priests would make statements and expect laypeople to believe them, no matter how ridiculous.

Martin continued cite John Frith’s essay A pistle to the christen reader, which was published In 1529. Here is a line:

They wold make men beleue… that ye mone is made of grene cheese.

But both Martin and Upton agreed that Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London (1821) has a usage close to the modern meaning.

“How’s Harry and Ben” – haven’t seen you this blue moon.

How Did The Meaning of ‘Once in a Blue Moon’ Evolve?

When Britons in the 16th century use the term “blue moon,” it was often akin to saying that the moon was made of green cheese. In short, that was an absurd statement.

Later on, “blue moon” was made in reference to something that was impossible. Specifically in the 19th century, “until a blue moon” meant “never.”

In the same century, the saying may have evolved to a meaning that is close to the one we mean today, as evidenced in Egan’s work. But the normal reference for the saying today is loosely connected to the moon cycle.

The Maine Farmers’ Almanac began listing the dates of forthcoming blue moons in 1819. The publication had one definition of what a blue moon was. In short, a blue moon was the third full moon in a season (spring, summer, winter, or fall) during which there were four full moons.

Most calendar years have 12 full moons, but some years have 13. The 12 moons were generally given names, but the third moon in a season that had four was deemed the blue moon so that the fourth moon would retain the proper name, which respect to the following equinox or solstice.

However, this definition was somewhat altered near the middle of the 20th century.

James Hugh Pruett, in a March 1946 edition of the Sky and Telescope Magazine, misinterpreted the information he got from Laurence LaFleur in Sky and Telescope in 1943 (Upton). LaFleur in turn was referring to a 1937 edition of The Maine Farmer’s Almanac. Pruett’s comments could be found on page 3 of the 1946 publication (Hiscock).

For some reason, Pruett’s explanation caught on. The Genus II edition (1986) of Trivial Pursuit had the “second moon if a calendar month” definition in one of its questions. The publisher of that game got their information from The Kids’ World Almanac of Records and Facts (which was published in 1985). The book was written by Margo McLoone-Basta and Alice Siegel, who may have gotten their information from a 1980 radio broadcast (Hiscock).

Do You Know What?

I kind of missed the boat. In spring 2016, there were four full moons. The third of those appeared in May.

But I don’t want to wait until 2018 to do a feature on the blue moon. But maybe I will take the time to go into more depth about this topic.

Works Cited

Brunner, Borgna and Imbornoni, Anne Marie. “Once in a Blue Moon.” Infoplease Web. Retrieved 1 Oct 2016. <http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bluemoon1.html>.

Hiscock, Philip. “Once in a Blue Moon.” Sky & Telescope. 24 Aug 2012. Web. Retrieved 1 Oct 2016. <http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/celestial-objects-to-watch/once-in-a-blue-moon/>.

“Full Moon Names and Their Meanings.” Farmers’ Almanac. Almanac Publishing Company; © 2016. Web. Retrieved 2 Oct 2016. <http://farmersalmanac.com/full-moon-names/>.

Martin, Gary. “Once in a blue moon.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 1 Oct 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/once-in-a-blue-moon.html>.

Upton, Emily. “The Origin of the Phrase ‘Once in a Blue Moon’” Today I Found Out. 10 June 2013. Web. Retrieved 1 Oct 2016. <http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/06/the-origin-of-the-phrase-once-in-a-blue-moon/>.

Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.