What’s in a name?

Vassar‘s Debra Elmegreen, Professor of Astronomy (Walter Garschagen | Vassar College)

We caught a lucky break with the clouds, and were able to see the total lunar eclipse the other week. A few people even saw a brief pinpoint of light on the eclipsed portion, as a meteoroid slammed into the Moon during the eclipse. Very cool. But the astronomy community is still talking about the title used in virtually all the mass media, when headlines promoted “an eclipse of the Super Blood Wolf Moon.”

As I’ve recently pointed out, an astrologer in 1979 coined “Super” for any Moon that comes nearer than average, even though such Moons can never visually appear any bigger than usual. The word “Blood” applied to the coppery hue during a lunar eclipse is of very recent vintage, too. And calling the January Full Moon the “Wolf Moon” was something only done by a single Native American tribe, the Algonquin – and even they often called it something else (the “Old Moon”). All other tribes had entirely different names for it.


This kind of mess makes it seem a miracle that the world has agreed on celestial names at all. But it’s true: Local and regional legends and lore have now been universally superseded by a standardized system. The Chinese, who broke the sky into much smaller groupings than Europeans did, now use our system of 88 constellations. And star names, which all came from the Greek, Latin and Arabic and previously included some shared by more than one pattern, are now each solely owned by one exclusive constellation.

Comets alone are named for their discoverer. Asteroids are generally numbered. Meteor showers take the names of the constellations whence they seem to emanate. And when spacecraft find new features on planets or their satellites, they are named according to strict rules.

Consider just Saturn’s moons: Titan’s features are named for ancient displaced cultures. Iapetus’ are people and places from Sayer’s translation of Le Chanson de Roland. Rhea’s features are all people and places from creation myths. Those of Dione: people and places from Virgil’s Aeneid. Enceladus: people and places from Burton’s Arabian Nights. Mimas: people and places from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Legends, Baines translation.

So happens, the president of the International Astronomical Union, who is responsible for all this, is our very own Debbie Elmegreen, who teaches Astronomy at Vassar and is one of the nicest people in the world. Professor Elmegreen also has courage, since she actually came flying in my plane with me. I wish we could get her involved in this Super Wolf Blood business. She and her group would whip the Moon into shape real quick.

Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyOne.com. Check out Bob’s new podcast, Astounding Universe, co-hosted by Pulse of the Planet’s Jim Metzner.