Moth eyebrows: lectio difficilior et tertium comparationis

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Dieter Maue, a specialist on Old Uyghur, Tocharian, Sanskrit, and Brahmi script, wrote to ask:

The simile 'like the moon of the third day' (tertium comparationis: delicate, graceful; curved (eyebrows)) is currently occupying my mind. Attested in Tocharian A and in Uigur, it sounds, but it doesn't seem to be, Indian.

Tentatively I have translated Uig. üč yaŋıdakı ay täŋri ‘third day’s moon god’ into Chinese word for word; but sān rì yuè 三日月("moon of the third day") is not found in the dictionaries. In the Chinese Tripitaka, there is just one suitable instance. Elsewhere, the moon of the third day seems to be called éméi yuè 蛾眉月 ("moth eyebrow moon" — only poetically?). According to Giles (ChinEnglDict 7714 ): “ éméi 蛾眉 moth eyebrows, – alluding to the delicate curved eye-markings of the silkworm moth … moth-eyebrows is used figuratively for a lovely girl.   Also wrongly explained as referring to the small curved antennæ of the silkworm moth. ­ Éméi yuè 蛾眉月‚ the crescent moon’. “  The antennae of Bombyx mori are clearly visible, while I cannot find anything which corresponds to  the “eye-markings”. Do you have an idea how to solve the problem?

My reply to Dieter:

Sān rì yuè 三日月 does exist, and it does indeed mean the moon of the third day of the lunar month.

Here's a Japanese dictionary entry for the term.

Chinese encyclopedia entry.

And, yes, it is a parallel expression to "moth eyebrow moon", for which see phase 2 here.

Here the "e" part of the expression is written with the female radical, not the insect radical:  éméi yuè 娥眉月 ("beautiful [young] woman's eyebrow", i.e., "waxing crescent moon").

Here are two mid-Tang poems (by Bo/Bai Juyi [772-846] and Dai Shulun [732-789]) referring to the moon of the third day of the lunar month, the second also using the conceit of the eyebrow:

一道殘陽鋪水中,半江瑟瑟半江紅。可憐九月初三夜,露似珍珠月似弓。——《 暮江吟》 白居易

涼月如眉掛柳灣,越中山色鏡中看。蘭溪三日桃花雨,半夜鯉魚來上灘。——《 蘭溪棹歌》 戴叔倫

I think you are justified in linking the Uyghur and Tocharian expressions about the moon of the third day of the lunar month with Chinese conceptions.

Dieter responded:

Thank you for the prompt reply and the substantive advice. It is difficult for the non-sinologist (who still uses the traditional dictionaries like Giles, Rüdenberg-Stange, etc.) to find the appropriate tools. Therefore, it was important to learn that 三日月 is also attested outside the Taisho. (I had already found out about its presence in Japanese).

As to éméi 娥眉 vs. éméi 蛾眉: What should one conclude from this? Is é 蛾 (with the "bug / insect" radical) the inferior variant? (The philologist would rather say: it is the lectio difficilior and therefore probably original!) Where did Giles, who lived in China for more than twenty years, get this spelling and the accompanying explanation, which in my opinion is factually incorrect?- In the case of éméi 娥眉, one would have to ask whether in é 娥 (with the female radical) there is perhaps the older meaning "moon" (Schuessler, EtymDictOChin p. 222).

From Zihan Guo:

I do not have a definite answer, but I think your philologist theory sounds right. The idea probably originally has to do with moths as an analogy to eyebrows. The phrase appears in Odes (ca. 6th c. BC), where the beauty is described with a series of natural and animal imagery characteristic of Odes:

Shǒu rú róu tí,

fū rú níngzhī,

lǐng rú qiú qí,

chǐ rú hù xī,

qín shǒu éméi;

qiǎo xiào qiàn xī,

měi mù pàn xī








Her fingers were like the blades of the young white-grass;
Her skin was like congealed ointment;
Her neck was like the tree-grub;
Her teeth were like melon seeds;
Her forehead cicada-like; her eyebrows like [the antenne of] the silkworm moth;

What dimples, as she artfully smiled!
How lovely her eyes, with the black and white so well defined!

    (translation by James Legge [1815-1897])

Éméi 蛾眉 fits perfectly there. With é 娥 the idea seems to become more abstract, meaning beautiful in general, and more feminized. Now I would definitely say éméi 娥眉 rather than éméi 蛾眉 because describing someone with moth-like eyebrows does not sound very nice to me personally. But I am not sure how ancient people would have thought of the epithet.

Here's another translation of the same poem:

From Shī jīng 詩經 (Poetry Classic), circa 6th c. BC:

(Her) hands are like catkins;

skin is like congealed lard;

neck is like larva of longicorn;

teeth are like calabash seeds;

forehead (like that of) cicada,

eyebrows (like antennae of) moth,

(her) enchanting smile is winsome;

(her) beautiful eyes are clear-set.

         — Ode 57, tr. Diana Shuheng Zhang

Shǒu rú róu tí
fū rú níng zhī
lǐng rú qiú qí
chǐ rú hù xī
qín shǒu é méi
qiǎo xiào qiàn xī
měi mù pàn xī.
      —— Wèi fēng·shuòrén

 —— 衛風·碩人

When I first read this poem half a century ago, I was stunned — and have been charmed by it ever since.  Now I wish that there were a talented artist who could draw a picture of this eminent beauty from the "Airs of Wei" in the Poetry Classic!

As a side-note, there's a famous mountain called Éméi shān 峨眉山 in Sichuan.  Here the character for the "é" syllable has a mountain radical.

峨眉 derives from the word 蛾眉 (éméi, “the feathery feelers of a moth”), so named because the peaks of Mount Emei do in fact resemble the feelers of a moth (see pictures). The “insect” radical () on the left side of the first character was later replaced with the “mountain” radical (). Thus, eventually became , so as to denote the mountain. The “mountain” radical can be optionally added to the second character . Both 峨嵋 and 峨眉 have been used through the centuries. simply means “mountain”.

(source, with pictures of the moth-eyebrow peaks and the antennae of a moth that do indeed resemble the gently arched eyebrows of a beautiful woman)

Poetic conceits travel far.


Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 9:40 am

    The Third Day of the Moon

    Images — here and here

    Seasonal effects and some other metaphors

  2. KeithB said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 4:25 pm

    Sounds like she belongs in OVO:

  3. wanda said,

    February 9, 2022 @ 12:52 am

    Does anyone have a good picture of the "eyebrow markings" of the silk moth? I've been zooming in on the pic below. I see the big fuzzy antennae but I can't see any markings around the eyes?

  4. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 9, 2022 @ 8:29 am

    I told my wife what I remembered from the poem — I told her that her skin reminded me of congealed lard, and that her neck was like unicorn larva. She wasn't swept off her feet. Truly, tradittore — tradottore.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2022 @ 9:26 am


    Thank you for that magnificent photograph of the moth antennae looking like beautiful, arching eyebrows.

    See also the embedded source link in the last, parenthetical paragraph of the original post.

  6. wanda said,

    February 9, 2022 @ 9:48 am

    @Victor: I see. I think I was thrown off by the quote, "Also wrongly explained as referring to the small curved antennæ of the silkworm moth". So, it isn't wrongly explained at all?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 9, 2022 @ 12:07 pm

    Yes, Wanda, that was Giles' mistake.

  8. Doctor Science said,

    February 9, 2022 @ 1:56 pm

    What does it mean to say her forehead was "cicada-like"? Is it evoking something about the physical appearance of the insect, or does refer to a metaphoric meaning as aristocratic & pure-minded?

    All of these metaphors are about appearance, it seems. I only recently realized that many of the metaphors in the Song of Songs evoke an animal's *behavior*, more than static appearance (4:1):

    Your eyes are like doves
    Behind your veil.
    Your hair is like a flock of goats
    Streaming down Mount Gilead.

    Her eyes are like doves because they flutter. Her hair is like a flock of goats because it's springy and bouncy.

  9. wanda said,

    February 10, 2022 @ 10:48 am

    @Doctor Science: maybe they mean it's high, smooth, and shiny?

  10. Terry Hunt said,

    February 12, 2022 @ 4:02 pm

    To raise an entomological point, it might be worth noting that the picture linked by Wanda is clearly that of a male silk moth. In most moth species (silk and otherwise), males have much more prominent antennae than females, with the latter's being smaller and more delicate, though still plainly visible.

    The biological reason for this is that in most moth species the males actively seek out the more sedentary females (which in a few species are actually wingless) by following the scent of pheromones that the females emit. For this they use their antennae, which are extraordinarily sensitive to even a few molecules wafted miles on the breeze.

    To people who practiced sericulture, the greater delicacy of the female silk moth's antennae would be a familiar fact, which might have a bearing on ety- (rather than ento-) mological references to them.

  11. Terry Hunt said,

    February 12, 2022 @ 4:04 pm

    Apologies for messing up the italics closure on my previous post. I wish this blog engine had a preview function.

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