In a word: sublunary

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


Unless you're reading sixteen- and seventeenth-century literature, you're not likely to find sublunary cropping up often, more's the pity. (More's the pity, too, that you're not reading more sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature.) 

The word mean existing beneath the moon (from the Latin sub, "under," luna, "moon"). More extensively, it means of the world or terrestrial, mundane, temporal, ephemeral. 

The stars dance in the graceful zodiac and the planets follow their courses, suggesting an eternal pattern of stability. But the moon keeps changing, altering its appearance through its phases, and that changeability came to be identified with the changeability of earthly life. All living under the moon are subject to change, and all under the moon is in some sense ephemeral. 


From the Oxford English Dictionary, some illustrations of these understandings:

From 1700: Man was "subjected to all the Influences, Laws and Customs of the Sublunary Planets, Stars and Constellations."

From John Donne, 1633: "Dull sublunary lovers love (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit Absence."

Bishop J. Hall, 1648: "Can ye hope to finde rest in any of these sublunary contentments?"

And a contemporary citation, from Evan S, Connell's The Alchymist's Journal (1991): "PERFECT apprehension of mortal affairs was not bequeathed us since the objects of our sublunary world continually change." 

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