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Q From John McGinnis: In reading John Updike’s review of the new Sinclair Lewis biography in the current issue of the New Yorker, I came across the word mooncalf. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a terse definition, ‘a foolish or absentminded person,’ and dates the word to 1614. I suspect the word derives from farming lore, but can you offer any scholarship to prove me right or wrong?

A It would indeed be reasonable to assume that the presence of calf here necessarily means that the word came out of animal husbandry. But by the time that mooncalf first appeared, in the 1550s, calf was being applied humorously to human beings, sometimes as a term of endearment, but also sometimes to somebody who was stupid, meek or inoffensive.

The earliest recorded example of mooncalf was in a thesaurus of 1565, in which the term was explicitly applied to a woman. The reference here was to a false pregnancy, to a growth in the womb that was not a foetus. The idea was that it had been created under the baleful influence of the moon. Later — by Shakespeare’s day — it could refer to a misshapen birth or a child with a congenital defect.

But the figurative sense of calf I’ve already mentioned, and the idea of somebody who is under the influence of the moon (later generations would talk about somebody being moonstruck) influenced mooncalf to the point where it shifted its sense to mean either a person who wasted time idly daydreaming (who mooned about in an absentminded way), or who was incorrigibly foolish.

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Page created 11 May 2002