Does “the forest moon of Endor” mean “the forest moon named Endor” or “the forest moon orbiting Endor”?

08/15/2010 By Shawn Burns

I enjoy late-night nonsense. Last night’s nonsense was parsing Admiral Ackbar’s phrase “the forest moon of Endor” from Return of the Jedi. I asked Twitter whether Ackbar meant to refer to the moon as Endor or just indicate a moon orbiting Endor.

Almost every single person who responded told me that Ackbar meant planet. I suspect, though, that while in the end they might be right, it is not because the answer is straightforward but because of a very complicated grammatical maneuver.

First, the problem: Why would anyone think the moon is called Endor at all? Well, in the first place, there’s no planet depicted in Return of the Jedi. So the evidence from the film that the phrase means one and not the other is non-existent. Outside of the film there are lots of little indicators: The second Ewok Adventure movie is called “Battle for Endor”, but all the battles take place on the forest moon, not on some other astronomical body, and there is no indication that settling the matter on the forest moon has any effect on other satellites and planets in the region. Other non-RotJ resources come down on the side of Endor being the name of the planet in the system, often referred to as destroyed before Return of the Jedi, but this is just as likely a jerry-rigged solution to the linguistic problem presented by the phrase in Return of the Jedi in the first place. Further, Wookiepedia has two entries for “Endor”, one being the planet and the other being the moon. Both have alternate names, so the fact that the one might also be called “the forest moon” or “the Sanctuary moon” is no indication that it’s not called “Endor”.

Second, an answer to the obvious answer: Why can’t it be both? While it is very possible that both a planet and a moon are called “Endor”, this does not actually solve anything, because Ackbar can only refer to one or the other when he says “the forest moon of Endor”. So while we may have been briefly elated to find a solution, we have to admit that our relief was only momentary. We still need a reason to believe Ackbar means planet rather than moon when he says “Endor”.

Third, a grammatical puzzle: Why would “of” mean “called” at all? It is easily assumed that in the phrase “forest moon of Endor” Ackbar must mean “belonging to” and not “called” because that’s just what “of” means. Last night I replied with this counter-example: “the southern city of Atlanta”. In that phrase “of” does not mean “belonging to” because we definitely mean to refer to Atlanta itself as the southern city. So, structurally, it looks like there’s no obvious reason to suppose “of” cannot mean “called” or “named” in “the forest moon of Endor”. However, it was suggested to me that in my example what I was noting was a misuse of the word “of”; that it should normally be read as being in the genitive (causal or original) case that indicates possession. But this is almost certainly false, because there are plenty of uses for “of” that do not indicate a possessive relationship in the way that would normally be the case: “A case of the measles”, “a dog of a different colour” (in which, you see, the possession goes the other way), and, I submit, “the southern city of Atlanta”. If it’s a misuse it’s just one of a number of misuses. Webster’s lists twelve different ways in which “of” is used in English, and many of them do not indicate possession.

I offered that the actual case of “of” in “the southern city of Atlanta” was ablative. If this is true, then settling the issue between genitive and ablative does offer a way to figure out what Ackbar is saying. But noting that “of” is often or even most frequently used in the genitive case does not decide the issue in favour of “planet” any more than it would decide “a case of the measles” in favour of “a case” belonging to “the measles”.

However, I am completely full of crap, because “of” cannot take an ablative in English. What I was thinking of was the Latin “de”, which we often translate as “of” and which takes an ablative that means one of “down from, from, concerning, about”. It seemed at the time that in the Endor-is-a-moon analysis, the “of” would have to be doing something similar. But reflecting on it, that is just not the case. Any ablative use of “of”, even if there were one in English tracking “de” in Latin, would lean the analysis toward “Endor” referring to a planet.

However, the fact that I incorrectly identified the use in “the southern city of Atlanta” as ablative doesn’t mean that the use there is a misuse of the possessive genitive case. It just means I’m an idiot. The fact remains that there are a number of non-possessive uses of “of”, and the use in “the southern city of Atlanta” is not illegitimate or even unusual. So, it still remains the case that “the forest moon of Endor” might indicate the moon being called “Endor”.

What has gone before shows how complicated the issue is; it is not as simple as just saying “Of course it’s a planet,” or “We don’t use “of” to name things that way” or any other superficial protest. However, in the end I do think that Ackbar must have been referring to the planet Endor and here is why: In the phrase “the southern city of Atlanta” what is going on is that “of” is indicating a relationship of general to specific: Atlanta is one token of a type, southern cities, about which we might speak. To say “the southern city of Atlanta” names Atlanta because it is specifying one of possibly many southern cities. In “the forest moon of Endor”, while it is not impossible that “forest moon” is a general case (there are probably plenty of forest moons in the galaxy) and “Endor” the specification of it, it is much, much more probable that there is only one forest moon in the astronomical system in which the second Death Star is located, in which case “Endor” is not specifying anything general at all. The specification was accomplished with “forest moon” and so the “of” in “the forest moon of Endor” is in fact indicating possession and not the same relationship as in “the southern city of Atlanta”. Here the tactical importance of military and navigational maneuvers, which cannot be accomplished beyond systems that are jumped into, contributes to settling Ackbar’s meaning. So, barring an interpretation that reads Ackbar as saying “Of all the forest moons out there, we are going to the one called “Endor””, (which is unlikely because military and navigational needs constrict the set of possibilities) or one in which there is more than one forest moon in the same system (not impossible, and maybe not unlikely, but if our own system is any indicator trees grow on planets with a pretty specific relationship to the system’s sun) it is the case that what he means is “the forest moon orbiting Endor”. While the moon itself might also be called Endor, that isn’t what Ackbar intended to convey.