The Grammarphobia Blog

The dark side of the moon

Q: Long before Pink Floyd, people were confusing the “dark side” of the moon with the “far side.” The “dark side” is the one without sunlight, but many think it’s the side we can’t see—that is, the “far side.” It seem to me that the confusion began in the 20th century, but I wonder if you have any information on this.

A: The dark side of the moon, as you say, is the one that faces away from the sun at any given time. The far side is the one that faces away from the earth. Only during a full moon are the dark side and the far side the same side.

It’s understandable, however, that many people refer to the far side (the one we can’t see) as the “dark side.” The adjective “dark” has meant hidden from view or knowledge since Shakespeare’s day, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

We don’t know exactly when the lunar confusion began, but a search of the America’s Historical Newspapers database suggests that it existed at least as far back as the early 19th century.

In fact, the earliest published reference for “the dark side of the moon” in the database, from  the Oct. 1, 1810, issue of the Rural Visitor, a Burlington, NJ, newspaper, seems to be an example of confusion:

“Men may be found possessing great professional knowledge, much integrity, and yet be as utterly unnoticed as though they tenanted the dark side of the moon.”

Most of the 19th-century examples, however, are from articles about eclipses and other astronomical events, and the writers use the term “dark side” properly.

As you suggest, the confusion grew in the 20th century. The July 15, 1915, issue of the Kansas City Star, for example, has an example in its serialization of Winnie Childs: The Shop Girl, a novel by C. N. and A. M. Williamson.

In the Williamsons’ work, “the dark side of the moon” is described as “the side about which people seldom troubled and never saw.”

As for the 1973 Pink Floyd album, The Dark Side of the Moon, it’s probably responsible for some of the recent confusion.

But from what we’ve read, the band chose the title as an allusion to the dark side of lunacy, not of Luna.

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