The Grammarphobia Blog

Moonshines

Q: Do you have any insights into the verb “moon,” which my dictionary says originated as student slang in the ‘60s?

A: Hmm. Your question reminds me of a “streaking” incident when I was a college student in Iowa in the early ‘70s. (In the lexicon of student pranks, the verb “streak” means to run naked in public.) But back to the subject at hand.

The verb “moon” has been around a bit longer than the 1960s. In fact, the earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a 1601 translation of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis. In those days, it meant to expose to, bask in, or glow like moonlight.

By the mid-18th century, the verb also meant to act listlessly or aimlessly, according to the OED. And by the late 19th century, it took on the additional meaning of to daydream or act sentimentally.

But your question is obviously about a very different meaning of the word, a slang usage that the OED defines this way: “To expose one’s buttocks, esp. as a gesture intended to insult or shock.”

The OED’s earliest citation for this usage is from a 1968 issue of the journal Current Slang. But I prefer this 1971 citation from National Lampoon: “Have a few ‘brews,’ gross out some chicks, ‘moon’ a townie.”

Although this meaning of the verb “moon” is relatively new, the noun “moon” has been used to refer to buttocks for more than 250 years. The OED’s earliest published reference, which dates from 1756, refers to someone’s uncovered moon.

Here’s a more literary citation, from Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “Or their skirt behind, placket unhooked. Glimpses of the moon.” And here’s one from the Beckett novel Murphy (1938): “Placing her hands upon her moons, plump and plain.”

Well, enough moonshines for today.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.