Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Once In A Blue Moon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 7, 2013

You’ve undoubtedly heard the expression once in a blue moon used … well … once in a blue moon.    And you’ve probably guessed by now that it means that the event in question is one that seldom, if ever, happens. In fact, the event in question never or almost never happens when someone responds with once in a blue moon. To even ask is considered somewhat absurd given that the event probably won’t happen at all.

Some will tell you that a blue moon is the second full moon that happens in a month but if the expression refers to something that rarely happens, then for the last few years, the world has experienced more than its fair share of blue moons since 1999.

The fact of the matter is that, historically speaking, 12 full moons were expected from one winter solstice to the next winter solstice, people expected that each quarter of a year would have 3 full moons. However, occasionally a fourth full moon occurred in a quarter and when that happened, the third of four full moons was referred to as the blue moon. And how often would this happen? Once every three years ergo a long time always passed between blue moons.

But as history would have it, author and amateur astronomer James Hugh Pruett (1886 – 1955) wrote an article for “Sky And Telescope” in March 1946, wherein he wrote that the second full moon in a month was known as the blue moon. He was wrong, of course, but as with many mistakes that go to print, the concept stuck.

Back on February 11, 1965 the St. Petersburg Evening Independent newspaper published an article by Bob Chick on the subject of one particular high school basketball star. This teen was what people referred to as a show stopper and a great athlete, and Bob Chick served example after example of just how good this teen was on the courts. He ended the article with this bit:

Hollins Coach Roy King provided a pretty good summary of Lanier’s talents. “He was tremendous. A don’t know of anything he couldn’t do with a basketball. They come along like Lanier once in a blue moon.”

Back in 1934, Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart wrote the very popular song “Blue Moon” which has resurfaced often over the years (the most memorable versions was recorded by the Marcels in 1961).

Interestingly enough, during the 1920s there were a spate of blue moon parties held during the spring and summer months. The decorations were in varying shades of blue and all of them were related to the moon or the man-in-the-moon. In fact, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper edition of June 29, 1929 published a feature by Leatrice Gregory aptly entitled:

Blue Moon Party Offers Picturesque Possibilities

In P.G. (Pelham Grenville) Wodehouse’s anthology “The Man Upstairs and Other Stories” published in 1914, there’s a story entitled, “Rough-Hew Them How We Will.” In this short story, the following passage is found:

There was an artist who dined at intervals at Bredin’s Parisian Cafe, and, as the artistic temperament was too impatient to be suited by Jeanne’s leisurely methods, it had fallen to Paul to wait upon him. It was to this expert that Paul, emboldened by the geniality of the artist’s manner, went for information. How did monsieur sell his pictures? Monsieur said he didn’t, except once in a blue moon. But when he did? Oh, he took the thing to the dealers. Paul thanked him. A friend of him, he explained, had painted a picture and wished to sell it.

Going back a little further, E. Cobham Brewster wrote in his “Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable” on the subject of blue moons.  The tome includes this commentary:

On Dec. 10, 1883, we had a blue moon. The winter was unusually mild. In 1927, during a total eclipse of the sun, many observers at Belfast, Ireland, fancied that the moon took on a decidedly blue tinge. Moons of unusual colors, such as green and blue, have been seen after certain violent volcanic explosions  and also occasionally through smoke-laden fogs, but inasmuch as once in a blue moon originally meant never, it is not likely that it was suggested by such lunar phenomena. The United Stated Weather Bureau has been unable to find anything in meteorological literature that would throw light on the origin of the phrase.

Interestingly enough, Edmund Yates published a book in 1869 entitled “Wrecked In Port.” In his book, which was touted as an autobiographical account of a shipwreck survivor, he wrote:

These gentry, who would have sat interested for that indefinite period known as ”a blue moon,” had the talk been of markets, and prices, and ” quotations,” at length thought it time to vary the intellectual repast, and one of them suggested that somebody should sing a song.

But the expression has persisted over a number of generations. In fact in William Roy and Jerome Barlow’s “Rede Me And Be Not Wroth” published in 1528, the concept of the blue moon (which is quite absurd based on this passage) is mentioned on page 114 as follows:

Agaynft god they are fo ftobbourne
That fcripture they toffe and tourne
After their owne ymaginacion.
Yf they say the moon is blewe
We must beleve that it is true
Admyttinge their interpretacion.

So while the concept of a blue moon meaning rarely or never or being an absurd concept of ever actually happening dates back at least to the early 1500s for William Roy and Jerome Barlow to include it in a book published in 1528.

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