Invisible Influences

March, 2021 Word Stories

In the modern world, astrology is often treated as a hobby, hovering somewhere between self-help and light entertainment. As our language shows, though, the possibility that heavenly bodies might shape earthly life was a deadly serious concern for our ancestors. It was taken for granted that the serene lights gracing the vault of the skies had an invisible but powerful influence behind the scenes of day-to-day life. This month’s Word Stories instalment takes a look at the way astrology has influenced our language in hidden but powerful ways.


Middle English inherited the word lunatik from the Late Latin form lunaticus or “moonstruck” (literally “pertaining to the moon”), probably via the Old French word lunatique (“mentally ill, insane”) which is still in use in Modern French. The association of the lunar with the lunatic came from the long-held belief that the moon could induce physical and affective disorders, especially for those who were already sick, weak or vulnerable. In Europe, the belief had strong authorities—the writings of Aristotle and Pliny the Elder on natural philosophy and medicine—to substantiate its claims, and the details of the moon’s nefarious influence were generally cloaked in pseudo-scientific explanations involving tide levels, overexposure to lunar light, synchronization of women’s menstrual cycles with lunar phases, and so on. The sixteenth-century Italian writer Tomaso Garzoni, in a 1600 translation of his historically important treatise on mental illness (The Hospitall of Incurable Fooles) warns the reader in these terms: “If the moone be euill [evil] placed, either it maketh men extatical, lunatick, or subiect to the kings euill.” Expressions like lunatic asylum (a psychiatric hospital) and lunatic fringe (in the sense of political extremists, a use first attested in American President Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiographical writings) retain strong pejorative connotations, implying a loss of rationality and common sense, as well as social isolation. Semantically similar terms include the Old English monseoc (“affected by bouts of insanity”, or literally “moon-sick”), and the Late Greek selēniazomai (“to have epileptic fits” - from selēnē, meaning “moon”).


The English word disaster is a sixteenth-century borrowing from the Middle French désastre, which in turn comes from the early Italian disastro or disastre. J. Florio’s Worlde of Wordes (1598) mentions both disastro and disastre as meaning “ill lucke.” This negative connotation came from the addition of the pejorative prefix dis- to the word astro (“star”), reflecting the astrological belief that an unfortunate alignment of the planets could influence human events on earth, causing misfortune or catastrophe. The bad luck of a disaster was seen, then, as the result of “bad stars” - the opposite of the good luck modern Jews still wish each other by wishing for mazel tov (“good stars”). The astrological roots of the word remain quite clear in early English uses like Shakespeare’s reference to the bad sign of disruptions or “Disasters” in the sun (Hamlet, 1604). The pre-scientific connection with illness was also preserved in English for a while, as can be seen, for example, in one man’s complaint about not being able to go out riding because of “a disaster upon my stomach” (H. Slingsby, Diary, 1684). In the end, though, only the connotation of bad luck and catastrophe has survived in the Modern English use of disaster. When people go to see a disaster movie or visit a disaster zone, they expect to witness misfortunes that are tragic, not magic.


The adjective saturnine (“gloomy”) derives ultimately from astrological ideas about the planet Saturn. In post-classical Latin, a saturninus person was thought to be under the dark influence of that heavenly body, which was at the time the most distant known planet. The apparent dimness of Saturn suggested that it was relatively dark and cold, and its distant orbit made it look like it was moving very slowly - in stark opposition to the planet Mercury, whose swift apparent motion gave rise to the contrasting adjective mercurial.

Due to Saturn’s sluggish, dark nature, a person called saturnine was lethargic and probably depressed. The Middle English Lives of Saints Edmund & Fremund (1435) therefore refers to a dreary appearance as “verray saturnyne.” The gloom thus evoked could also have a forbidding edge, like the “old Saturnine face” of the Phrygian sibyl in K. Lykosthenes’s epic Doome (1581), or the palmistry lines that indicated a person’s dark “Saturnine nature” (Joannes ab Indagine, A Briefe Introduction vnto the Art of Chiromancy and Physiognomy, 1158). Whereas the fleet-footed god and planet named Mercury were associated with the liquid “quicksilver” of the same name, the planet Saturn was associated with the heavy, deadening element lead. For this reason, lead-laced materials and patients suffering from the lethargy and depression of lead poisoning were both commonly called “saturnine” in medieval alchemy and medicine. Medical books offered warnings about the “Saturnine Colic” (Richard Brookes, An Introduction to Physic and Surgery, 1754), and advised doctors to watch out for the offensive symptom of “Saturnine Breath” (Robley Dunglison, Medical Lexicon: a Dictionary of Medical Science, 1857).

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