What Are The Different Names For Our Moon?

The word moon has been around as long as the English language, which is not surprising because the moon was critically important to early civilizations. It comes from the Old English mona and shares a root with the word month—because the moon revolves around the Earth once a month. While the sun stays the same day after day, the moon changes every night, allowing ancient peoples to identify the days and months and seasons.

Today, we have calendars and clocks to help us keep track of time. But some of the old names for the moon (especially a full moon) have stuck. We use them in expressions, as part of our own lunar observations, or—if you're a fan of astrology—to read your star chart.

Many, though not all, of these names for moons are linked to traditions related to ecology and ways of life. While you might have heard of some of the names we're referring to, we bet there are lots that will surprise you.

blue moon

Today, the blue moon is the second full moon in a calendar month. It's awfully rare for a blue moon to come around—it only occurs once every 2.7 years. However, before 1946, when amateur astronomer James High Pruett mistakenly defined the term in Sky & Telescope, a blue moon referred to the third full moon in a season including four full moons (instead of the typical three).

The blue in blue moon is thought to come from the old English word be-lǽwa, meaning "betrayer"—possibly because it was out of sync with the usual moon cycle.

Regardless of the definition, a blue moon is awfully rare—that's where we get the expression once in a blue moon, which is attested to since the 1830s (although it originally had a meaning closer to "never").

Interestingly, there is an earlier version of this expression—to say that the moon is blue. This expression, which dates to the 1520s, meant "to believe in something completely absurd." Another version of this expression from the same time period is to believe the moon is made of green cheese. Cool.Blue moon is just an expression—a blue moon isn't literally blue. However, sometimes the moon can appear blue. If after wildfires or volcanic activity particulates in the atmosphere are the right size, the moon will appear blue or green.

strawberry moon

Throughout history, the arrival of certain plants, animals, or weather patterns have been used for the naming of moons. For example, the strawberry moon—you guessed it— coincides with the arrival of strawberries (yum).

Many Native nations throughout the United States link a particular moon to these (wild) strawberries. Which moon that was depended on where those tribes lived. In the warm southern United States, the Natchez people called the April full moon the strawberry moon. A reference to this strawberry moon, the earliest attested to in English, is documented in a translation of The History of Louisiana by M. le Page du Pratz published in 1774.

For the Cherokee people, March is known as the strawberry moon, or anvhyi in Cherokee. For the Anishnaabe, June is known as ode'imini-giizis or strawberry moon. And there are half a dozen other variations.

Today, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac, the strawberry moon is generally thought to occur in June.

harvest moon

Before it was a 1992 album by the Canadian artist Neil Young, the harvest moon referred to the full moon closest to autumnal equinox, typically in September or October.

The word harvest comes from the Old English word hærfest which referred to the autumn season. In the mid 1200s, harvest became more closely associated with the sense we know it in today—the gathering of crops. The expression harvest moon is attested to by 1704.

Many cultures have harvest moons, including a number of Native American languages. In China, the Moon festival (Zhongqiu Jie), also known as the Mid-Autumn festival is celebrated during the harvest moon. As part of the celebration, families traditionally share mooncakes, a kind of sweet pastry.

buck moon | sturgeon moon

The words buck and sturgeon both date to the 1300s to refer to a male deer and the fierce fish, respectively. But the expressions buck moon and sturgeon moon didn't come around until almost 500 years later. A buck moon refers to the full moon in July, and the sturgeon moon refers to the full moon in August.

The expression buck moon and sturgeon moon have been in use in English at least since 1778 when Jonathan Carver of Massachusetts published his widely read Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America in the Years 1766, 1767, and 1768. Carver met with members of the Sioux nation in his travels, amongst other Native groups, and wrote about his observations of them. He noted that, "Every month with them has a name expressive of its season … July, the Buck Moon … August, the Sturgeon Moon, because in this month they catch great numbers of that fish."

Unfortunately, Carver didn’t take care to note which Native language he was referring to. And these names don't seem to be in evidence in modern collections of Native names for the months. But regardless, the names stuck and the Old Farmer's Almanac today uses these terms for designating the full moons of July and August.

cold moon

In most parts of the United States, January is cold—bitter cold. So it makes sense that for many Native American tribes, the name for the January or other winter full moons translates to some variation of cold moon.

In Cherokee and Mohawk, the cold moon takes place in January. In Eastern Comanche, it's December. For the Central Shoshoni people, the cold moon takes place in November.

While the expression cold moon appears in many literary texts in English—even in Shakespeare—it isn't until the early 1800s that English-language texts note the Native American expression cold moon in relation to the January full moon.

In the English tradition, the January full moon would have been known as the moon after yuleyule being the name for the winter solstice.

milk moon

According to apocryphal accounts, the name milk moon is a colonial English expression for the full moon in April. As the theory goes, grass is particularly abundant in April, allowing the farm animals to make a lot of milk.

The written evidence for this theory is a bit thin. The earliest written uses of the expression milk moon in evidence come from late 19th- and early 20th-century studies of tribes in Mongolia and their names for different months.

One of these, when translated, was known as the milk moon. However, at least by the early 20th century, the April full moon was termed the milk moon in English-language almanacs.

SIGN UP FOR A VOCABULARY BOOST IN YOUR EMAIL
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

Enter your email for quizzes, quotes, and word facts in your inbox every day.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.