Q&A: Over the moon?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're mooning about…

Q: Hi AWC, it’s the Lunar New Year…

A: Oh, rats!

Q: What’s the matter, did you forget to decorate your house with red lanterns?

A: No, we mean it’s the Year of the Rat.

Q: Ah right, so it is. Actually, while we’re excited about all things lunar, can you explain where the phrase “over the moon” came from?

A: If you’re familiar with nursery rhymes, the answer is actually fairly obvious. It comes from the 16th century classic, Hey Diddle Diddle – where you may recall that the cow jumped over the moon.

Q: Sure, but a cat also played a fiddle and a dish ran away with a spoon too – and you don’t hear us announcing this when excited. Why did this particular cow get linked to elation?

A: Well, you won’t get too many answers from the rhyme itself – we’re not quite sure what crazy drugs those 1500s-era nursery rappers were taking, but it was always written to be nonsense.

Q: Nursery rappers, haha, nice. Like P-Diddle ft. Snoop Little Dog Laughed to C Sucha Syte…

A: Hilarious. Anyway, it actually wasn’t until the 19th century that the saying took on today’s meaning, initially in its longer form, e.g. “Ready to jump over the moon for delight”, from an 1840 publication.

Q: When did it get shortened?

A: Quite soon after. It has been found in diary records from the 1850s as “over the moon” – in an example of a sibling excited about the arrival of a baby.

Q: This is all fine, but remember the dish and the spoon? WHY was it a moon in the first place?

A: Well, if you’ve ever seen the end of a Toyota Australia car ad, you know that they’ve been jumping for joy in their ads since this 1984 example. You jump when you’re happy – so clearly the moon is the superlative of being so happy that you jumped a long way.

Q: Oh, it’s like when lovey-dovey couples say that they love each other “to the moon and back”, right?

A: Exactly. Another reason for today’s popularity of “over the moon” seems linked to its surge in popularity during the 1970s, when British football teams adopted the term to describe how they felt after winning.

Q: What did they say if they lost?

A: They said they were “sick as a parrot”.

Q: How strange. Okay, so what about if you “shoot the moon”?

A: This phrase originated in Britain in the 1820s, meaning to skip town without paying rent – these days more broadly meaning to “abscond” or leave secretly. The Macquarie Dictionary also lists an Australian version, meaning a convict escaping from custody.

Q: Why have I heard Americans use it in a different, aspirational way?

A: It’s likely a derivation of “shoot for the moon” – from a quote attributed to Norman Peale and many others. It says that you should “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars”. A nice way of saying, aim for a stretch goal and even if you don’t reach that goal, you will still have done well.

Q: Kind of funny, because the stars are much further away than the moon.

A: We’re not sure it was designed to be astronomically accurate.

Q: Fair enough. So, finally, why if you show off your bare buttocks are you said to “moon” someone?

A: Apparently one of the meanings of the noun “moon” had been the buttocks, dating all the way back to 1756. So, we already had that. It would sit on the lexical sidelines for more than 200 years though, until 1968 – when the verb “to moon” someone (flash your buttocks) took off, thanks to – you guessed it – American student slang.

Q: Any other moon facts?

A: Well, did you know that the idea of a “dark side of the moon” is false? Both sides of the moon see the sun, however only one side is ever visible from Earth.

Q: Fascinating.

A: And and and… did you know that the moon is moving away from our planet at a rate of 3.8cm every year?

Q: Again, wow. That’s almost as fast as I’m moving away from this conversation. Goodbye!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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