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As twilight descends on New Year's Eve of 2009, a full Moon will rise in the eastern sky for the second time this month (the first time came on December 2nd). Many people use the expression "once in a blue Moon" to mean something that occurs rarely, and you might be tempted to call December 31st's big, bright orb a "Blue Moon" too. While the former meaning can be traced back centuries, the latter definition is much newer — and it's wrong! At least if you're a stickler about these things.
"In modern usage, the second full Moon in a month has come to be called a 'Blue Moon.' But it's not!" says Kelly Beatty, Senior Contributing Editor for Sky & Telescope magazine. "This colorful term is actually a calendrical goof that worked its way into the pages of Sky & Telescope back in March 1946, and it spread to the world from there."
Sky & Telescope admitted to its "Blue Moon blooper" in its May 1999 issue. Texas astronomer-historian Donald W. Olson, along with research librarian Margaret Vaverek at Texas State University, worked with the magazine’s editors at the time to figure out the origin of the mistake, and how the two-full-Moons-in-a-month meaning spread into the English language.
Before 1946, a Blue Moon always meant something else. For example, says Canadian folklorist Philip Hiscock (in his story on the subject in the March 1999 issue), sometimes it referred to an obvious absurdity. Quite a few old songs use it as a symbol of sadness and loneliness. There's even a cocktail called a Blue Moon; it's a mix of curaçao, gin, and perhaps a twist of lemon. And, exceedingly rarely, the Moon actually does turn blue in our sky — when a volcanic eruption, forest fires or dust storms send lots of fine dust into the atmosphere.
Our 1946 writer, amateur astronomer James Hugh Pruett (1886–1955), made an incorrect assumption about how the term had been used in the Maine Farmers' Almanac — which consistently used "Blue Moon" to mean to the third full Moon in a season containing four of them (rather than the usual three).
By this definition, there is no Blue Moon in December 2009; instead, the last one was in May 2008, and the next happens in November 2010.
But there's no turning back now. The concept of a Blue Moon as the second full Moon in a month with two, as well as the third full Moon in a season with four, are now both listed as official definitions in the 4th edition of the American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
By either definition, Blue Moons happen about once every 2.7 years on average. The last occurrence of two full Moons in a calendar month was in May 2007 (in North American time zones; the clock had already turned over to June 1st in Europe and Asia.) The next will be in August 2012.
The last time a second full Moon last fell on New Year's Eve was in 1990.
If you want to tell your readers, listeners, or viewers that this Thursday's full Moon is a Blue Moon, go right ahead. Pretty much everyone else will too. The newer, "wrong" definition is simpler and handier for most people to grasp and use. "That's how the English language shifts. You can't beat back the tide," quips Sky & Telescope Senior Editor Alan MacRobert. "Not when the Moon is pulling the tide."
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Sky & Telescope, published by New Track Media, has been the world’s leading, most authoritative popular astronomy magazine since its founding in 1941. Sky & Telescope Media also publishes two annuals (Beautiful Universe and SkyWatch), as well as books, star atlases, posters, planet globes, and other fine astronomy products for amateur telescope users and the general public.