What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. In 2018, that means March 23-April 15, July 26-August 19, and November 17-December 6. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

THE HISTORY

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

WHAT IS IT ACTUALLY?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

iStock
iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

iStock.com/netopaek
iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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