|You are reclining, secure on your front porch, whiling away a tranquil Indian Summer evening somewhere in or about Pittsburgh. The jails and the moon are full. You look out across the street, which has a charming residential name such as Pocusset, Curry Hollow, or Druid Drive, while your dog Phoebe howls at the moon from the crest of your hill—Chicken Hill, Troy Hill, Polish Hill, Observatory Hill—not far from the school, which is called Lemington, Arsenal, or Sto-Rox. The neighborhood is known as Trotwood Acres, Soho, Camelot, the Bottoms, or the Mexican Wars Streets, situated in Upper St. Clair, Lower Burrell, or Slate Lick, overlooking the Kiskiminetas, the Youghiogheny, or Chartiers Creek, any of which empties into a sea of names: the Monongahela, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, the Sargasso. Your name is on your mailbox and on your mail. Your dog's name is on her collar, and her flea collar's name is on her flea collar and on television. In the heavens, the Earth is accompanied by eight other planets, all of which have names and some of which have moons, and all of the moons have names—except ours.
Who Remains Nameless?
To the best of our knowledge, no moon of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune has ever kindled a love affair or provoked a rhyme. None, however full, has ever been addressed by a wolf or reflected in the Dow Jones Industrials. None has stirred the homicide division or the psychiatric ward to action the way Earth's full moon regularly does. Yet all of those other moons have been awarded not just names but classical names, mythological names, revered namesakes, inventors of telescopes, goddesses of the hunt and the harvest—while our moon is bereft of even so much as the name of a county commissioner.
Saturn is majestically circumnavigated by Titan, Hyperion, Iapetus, and other attending deities. Jupiter hosts Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Even the flyspeck satellites of Mars—the smaller of which has no more acreage than a Texas cattle ranch—carry the names of Phobos and Deimos, sons of the Greek god of war. But what name do we give to Earth's moon? "The moon."
We have named its mountains in English, Latin, and Russian. We have titled every one of its nonexistent seas. On terrain features where no train ever stops, we have unleashed such flights of human imagination as Mare Imbrium, Oceanus Procellarum, the Peak of Eratosthenes, the Walls of Newton. But for the great globe itself? Just "the moon," or "luna," which means "the moon." Even in those gentle days when our culture permitted us a man in the moon, by what biblical, classical, mythological, or folklorical name was he known? "The man." In "the moon."
True, there are reasons for naming, and some of those reasons are missing in the case of the moon. First, there is only one moon to keep track of—or so it seemed until Galileo. To songwriters, there is still only one. Second, it is not for sale. There is no need to persuade people to try the moon or buy it, ride it or vote for it; so there is no occasion to coin and copyright a name for proclamation by billboard and brochure. We name a thing to distinguish it from other things or to promote its virtues in the marketplace. If the moon were called The Superflash Orbiter and consumer moon-gazing increased by 30 per cent, no one would make a dime.
It's also true that many things are quite naturally called by their generic names rather than their proper, given, or brand names. "The incline" runs up "the hill" overlooking "the river." Still, behind this shorthand, the hill is Mt. Washington; the river, the Monongahela. Point State Park is not merely "the park" where "the river" meets "the river" to form "the river." You can properly say you are taking "the bus" to town, but you can't call the Port Authority to ask, "Where does the bus stop?" They might tell you, "At the corner."
Had there been only one bus in history, it's conceivable that people might continue to call it The Bus rather than the Dormont/Sunset or the Shannon/Drake. Or they might have called it The Pig, names being quite often arbitrary, and called the pig the Alps and referred to the Alps as Sonny Tufts, and named him Shannon Drake. Any name is better than no name. Once there are other known buses and other known moons, a proper name must be chosen for our own—especially when it weighs 81,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons, sways the Earth's orbit, swells the oceans, signals plantings and harvests, eclipses the sun, and costs $70 billion to set foot on.
Shine On, Watchamacallit
As for settling on a particular name, the chief problem is jurisdictional; that is, whether the decision should be international, national, or local. The Romans tried a national-local compromise. They personified the moon as Cynthia, using this as a surname for Diana, since Diana was supposed to have been born on Mt Cynthus. By that principle of nomenclature, we might be tempted to name the moon Stan Musial, since it rises over Donora just as surely as it does over Mt. Cynthus.
If we really believe what our government says as it spends our grandchildren's birthright to spread democracy across the planet, the proper way to name the moon would be by plebiscite. But look whom we've been electing. I'm not sure how the world would vote, but in the U.S. today a referendum to name the moon might choose "Shiny." Or "Dusty."
More likely, the decision will default to the caucuses of Washington. Theirs is the habit of authority, coupled with an unquenchable passion for naming everything in sight, in honor of themselves. Each day, congressmen pass the Senator Robert A. Taft Memorial Bell Tower on their way to the Sam Rayburn Building, lunch on Speaker Joseph G. Cannon Memorial Bean Soup in the House restaurant, then stroll through the Plaza past the Everett M. Dirksen Memorial Pin Oak to the Representative Gilbert Gude Memorial Paw Paw Tree, all the while straining their febrile imaginations to think of something that has not yet been named.
Imagine what will happen when they finally look up.
(from Pittsburgher Magazine, 1977)
"If Instead of Apes
We Had Come from Grapes"
is a book of light verse
written and illustrated
by Alan Van Dine