What is the Moon’s Real Name?

We call it the Moon, but… what’s its real name? You know, the name that scientists call the Moon.

As of 2015, there are 146 official moons in the Solar System, and then another 27 provisional moons, who are still waiting on the status of their application. All official moons have names after gods or Shakespeare characters. Names like Callisto, Titan, or Prometheus. But there’s one moon in the Solar System with a super boring name… the one you’re most familiar with: Moon.

But come on, that’s such a boring name. Clearly that’s just its common name. So what’s the Moon’s real name? Its scientific name. The neato cool name. Like Krelon, Krona, Avron or Mua’Dib.

Are you ready for this? The answer is: The Moon. Here’s some hand-waving and excuse making. Really, this is our own damn fault. Until Galileo first turned his telescope to the skies in 1610, and realized that Jupiter had tiny spots of light orbiting around it, astronomers had no idea other planets had moons.

Humans have been around for a few hundred thousand years, and the Moon was a familiar object in the sky. We’ve only had evidence of other moons for a little over 400 years. We didn’t collectively understand the Earth was a planet until Copernicus developed the heliocentric model of the Solar System.

We still have a little trouble with that, even though we’re firing a probe directly at the Sun. We didn’t give into the idea that the Sun was a star until recently. Giordano Bruno proposed the idea in 1590 and we burned him at the stake for suggesting it. Seriously, I can’t stare at this any longer. Yes, we’re awful. I’m going to talk about “the Moon” again.

Scientists classify the Moon as a natural satellite. Somehow this helps distinguish it from the artificial satellites we’ve been launching for the last 60 years.

High resolution photo map of the moon's far side imaged by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Mare Moscoviense lies at upper left and Tsiolkovsky at lower left. Click for a hi res image. Credit: NASA
High resolution photo map of the moon’s far side imaged by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA

What about terms like “Luna”? That’s Latin for Moon. It’s not an official title or scientific term, but ooh, fancy. Latin.

If you want to make sure people know you’re talking about “The Moon” and not “a moon”, it’s all about capitalization. Put a capital “M” in front of “oon” and you’re good to go.

The name of our solar system? It’s the Solar System (again, capitalized). Our galaxy? The Galaxy with a capital G. The universe? Capital U Universe.

What about the Sun? Isn’t it “sol”? That’s just the Latin word for “sun”. Helios? Greek God version of the Sun.

If we ever discover that we’re really living in a multiverse, we’ll need to give those other universes names. And people will wonder what the actual official title is for the Universe. I’ll make another video when that happens, I promise.

The official advice from the International Astronomical Union, who are the people you’re still mad at about Pluto, is that the capitalization is what makes the definition.

Supermoon through the clouds on September 9, 2014. Credit and copyright: scul-001 on Flickr.
Supermoon through the clouds on September 9, 2014. Credit and copyright: scul-001 on Flickr.

Not everyone in the world adheres to the capitalization so carefully, which can tend to some confusion. Are we talking about the sun or the Sun? As someone who writes space articles, let me assure you, messing this up will light up the comments section with “Which is better Deep Space 9 vs. Voyager” level of shrill all caps screaming.

Calling it “the Moon” is kind of boring, but that’s only because scientific discovery has pushed our understanding of the Universe so far out. It’s amazing to think that we’ve discovered so many other moons in the Solar System, and soon, we’ll find them around other stars.

So, for now it’s The Universe. When we find others, this one will still be THE Capital-U Universe and the new ones will be Nimoy and Sagan and Clarke.

Why don’t we give the Moon a new name. Something with a little more razzle-dazzle. Make your suggestions in the comments below. Alternately, suggest a fancy Latin name of “Guide to Space”, I’ve got dibs on “Aether Libris”.

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12 Replies to “What is the Moon’s Real Name?”

  1. It’s not just our fault – if we had two moons, I’m sure they would have names. But since we have only one, it’s just called the Moon
    I wonder what we’d call moons if there was no word Moon to start with. The ancients would probably say those two moons were planets (like they did with the Sun). And we might be saying today that Jupiter is orbited by satellite planets or something like that.

    Now back to the one moon scenario – what about Selene? I’ve heard people call selenites to the (supposed) inhabitants of the moon. Wouldn’t that mean the moon is called Selene (but we just don’t use that name for lack of necessity?)

    1. Apparently Selene is the Greek version of Luna. Still, I like Selene the best.

  2. Why, I remember getting this explanation way back when i was a teenager by the B-52s (“there’s a moon in the sky; it’s called The Moon”)

    My suggestion for a proper name for the moon is M?q?n (??), the word ‘mother’ in Chinese, pronounced moo-cheen, with a very soft gentle n at the end. I just thought as a change from Latin names, use a living language, one of the more common ones.

  3. No way to change that… we “screwed that up” already 😉 . By now we are used to that (Pluto will always be the 9th planet, no matter what the arguments will be!) so let’s stick to it… our moon is The Moon… tadaa..!

    1. We really should have thought this through before we gave them their names. We had our last chance with the Universe, and we’ve already given that one the generic treatment too.

  4. One thing that is really bugging me is that you refer to our galaxy as the Galaxy, and then go on to explain why all the other generic names are correct uses. However, you never really explain the use of “the Galaxy.” The lack of explanation on this one is particularly poignant considering that numerous books and even this website refer to our galaxy as the Milky Way. Not that saying the Galaxy is wrong, it is still technically a correct usage, just like the Nation referring to the particular nation you live in. Is there a preference for not referring to our galaxy as the Milky Way?

  5. Our moon’s name is ‘Selene’ (Greek) or ‘Luna’ (Latin).

    Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selene):
    In Greek mythology, Selene (/s??li?ni/; Greek ?????? [sel???n??] ‘moon’;) is the goddess of the moon. She is the daughter of the Titans Hyperion and Theia, and sister of the sun-god Helios, and Eos, goddess of the dawn. She drives her moon chariot across the heavens. Several lovers are attributed to her in various myths, including Zeus, Pan, and the mortal Endymion. In classical times, Selene was often identified with Artemis, much as her brother, Helios, was identified with Apollo.[1] Both Selene and Artemis were also associated with Hecate, and all three were regarded as lunar goddesses, although only Selene was regarded as the personification of the moon itself. Her Roman equivalent is Luna.[2]

    Modern Greeks still refer to the moon as Selene.

  6. According to Sumerian texts that are many thousands of years old, the moon’s real name is Kingu and was said to be Earth’s companion.

  7. Fredd. I think we should call the moon, Fredd, with two D’s. Easy to remember and easy to spell…

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