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

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.

28 comments

1 Avitable { 08.15.10 at 10:13 AM }

I'm sorry, I tried to read this post, but all I could see was "Nerd nerd nerd geek geek Geek Nerd moon of Endor."

2 Casey Freeland { 08.15.10 at 10:49 AM }

Oh, my, god! Maybe, just maybe, Lucas (You SEEM smart, so I'm assuming you do indeed understand that this is fiction.) f'd up? He probably got to some point in his story-telling and said to himself, "Oh, crap, I called Endor a planet and a moon. Well, I guess they will both have to be Endor." or "Well, folks are identifying with the name Endor so instead of now inventing some name for this forest moon, I'm going to just call it Endor. It'll sell more stuff." I'm voting for the latter.

Laundry… Endor… I can't wait to read your next post! Wait, let me go get a snack first.

Kidding, of course. I love your blog. I mean not LOVE love, but certainly chest-slamming, bro love.

Casey

3 Backpacking Dad { 08.15.10 at 11:44 AM }

If you'd kept reading you would have seen "dork, dweeb, spaz, moon of

Endor".

4 Backpacking Dad { 08.15.10 at 11:55 AM }

Ah, but I'm not interested in what Endor is, but what Ackbar means. There needn't be any intentionality in meaning here, just semantic content to the actual phrase, and the semantic content of the phrase he uses settles the issue on the side of "planet" for the purpose of the phrase. It doesn't mean he wouldn't also refer to the moon as "Endor" but he doesn't in fact do that.

A Lucas screw up or not, the phrase itself is still a meaning-bearer, and now we all know what the meaning is. Because I am awesome.

5 Avitable { 08.15.10 at 12:16 PM }

I guess this statement of Ackbar's never confused me because I read all of the books, and somewhere in the canon, they talk about Endor having several moons revolving around it, so the forest moon of Endor is different than the ice moon of Endor, etc. And since Endor is a gaseous planet, which is presumably inhospitable, the moons would be the central focus of any battle.

6 Backpacking Dad { 08.15.10 at 12:22 PM }

The canon also gets you Endor being the name of the moon. The canon is

mostly unhelpful if we do more than assume one or the other.

Yes, the suspicion that he means "planet" is the correct one, and it is

intuitive. But the intuition isn't explanatory nor is it evidence of

meaning.

7 Anonymous { 08.15.10 at 1:12 PM }

You should have been here in Orlando this weekend. We just came from the Star Wars Celebration and I think you could have gotten into some deep conversation over all this. I did see the dude who played Ackbar. An Ewok too for that matter.

8 Backpacking Dad { 08.15.10 at 2:23 PM }

Damn, you should have asked HIM what he meant.

9 Comfy Mom { 08.15.10 at 2:29 PM }

What have you been smoking & did you bring enough for the whole class?

According to the Star Wars Encyclopedia, a vast tome published in 1998, Endor is the name of the star system where the forest moon is located. The Endor system is in the Moddell sector. There is a planet, a large silver gas giant that is orbited by 9 moons, the largest of which is forested. The planet itself is known as the Forest Moon but is also called Endor as it is the only inhabitable object in the area.

Probably Ackbar suffered from the same problem of prepositions that many non native English speakers have, either misplacing it in the sentence structure or choose the wrong one entirely. The Mon Calamari natively speak Calamari & have to learn English.

10 Jennifer L. { 08.15.10 at 3:07 PM }

Well, I'm glad at least that my (incomplete, silly, and clearly incorrect) response brought on this post because I thoroughly enjoyed reading it! And now we're all the smarter for it ;-)

11 Casey Freeland { 08.15.10 at 5:21 PM }

Wow, you are awesome!

12 Casey Freeland { 08.15.10 at 5:27 PM }

Smarter? I wouldn't say smarter.

13 Backpacking Dad { 08.15.10 at 5:27 PM }

Word.

14 Kyddryn { 08.15.10 at 6:49 PM }

Wow…I read the whole post…and now I'm dizzy…

I never gave it much thought, just figured he meant the moon full o' trees lurking around the planet Endor…but then, I wasn't very keen on the Ewok bits of the movies and never read the books, so I'm not much of a Trekkie…er…Star Warsian…

Cheers for the grammar lesson, though!

Shade and Sweetwater,

K

15 Anonymous { 08.15.10 at 9:04 PM }

Dude. My brain. You made it hurt. I ended up just reading the bolded parts.

16 Eric { 08.16.10 at 6:46 PM }

This is easily the most deep post I've read all night. :) Love it. Any time someone can write that long about a single line in a movie is well worth coming back to.

17 Anonymous { 08.17.10 at 6:59 AM }

Shawn you have entirely to much time on your hands! You need more laundry!

18 theen { 08.18.10 at 5:43 PM }

Oh boy it made my nose bleed! ROFLMAO! anyway you really have a writer's hand. By reading your post it makes me think of studying astronomy in the future. :) flybar

19 theen { 08.18.10 at 5:49 PM }

Oh boy it made my nose bleed! ROFLMAO! anyway you really have a writer's hand! By reading your post it makes me think of studying astronomy in the future. :) flybar

20 Backpacking Dad { 08.21.10 at 5:35 PM }

FLYBAR!!!!

I have no idea what that means, but it sounded like it required shouting.

21 guest { 09.01.10 at 6:19 AM }

I'm sorry, I tried to read this post, but all I could see was "Nerd nerd nerd geek geek Geek Nerd moon of Endor."

Says the man who read all the books…

22 DrBlock { 11.14.10 at 10:12 PM }

Yes, He is Of the Smarter. ;-)

23 DrBlock { 11.14.10 at 10:22 PM }

I was thinking the same thing, the whole conversation goes out the window because he may not even know the rules quoted.

However I see approaching the Admiral, asking about the place, and getting his response:

"I don't know, it's the name of the place on my map, Names don't follow reason. Just look to see if it's orbiting a planet when we get there."

Then he'd make a gargling sound, which left my face wet.

24 Rotcod { 01.21.13 at 1:14 PM }

I found your blog because I’ve had this question since 1983 or so. I am still not convinced to either answer. It’s strange that we name all the various moons in our solar system (Saturn’s, etc), we name the planets, we named the star (Sun). But the moon we just call moon. In English anyway. Maybe it does have a name: Luna? So that is why I think it strange that Ackbar would just call it forest moon. Another question is, do Star systems get named for the star or a hospitable planet there. Tarkin says “Name the system,” right? Did Leah name the star or the planet? Or an inhabited MOON!?
I guess what I’m getting at is, there should be a ‘standard.’ Should be. You might think that a standard of naming systems by the star, prominent planet, or inhabited moon would have developed. Perhaps though, different standards developed in different parts of the galaxy.
This brings us back to Ackbar. One could argue any side. You could even argue that he was naming the star system right? The forest moon of the (Star system) Endor?
One thing is for sure this whole discussion IS A TRAP!!!

25 TB-8455 { 06.10.13 at 1:11 PM }

Nicely done. I too wondered about this topic. :)

26 Backpacking Dad { 06.10.13 at 4:40 PM }

@TB-8455,

I’m not alone!

27 Jane Sauric { 09.04.13 at 3:39 PM }

Sweetie, if only all men were like you, we would never have another war, just endless late-night verbal jousts. And I mean that as a good thing.

28 Leroy Tavis { 09.04.13 at 3:41 PM }

Aslo just to put it out there, Ackbar is a Mon Calamari. Simply put his original language would then be Mon Calamarian, and not the galactic basic. In that case (not sure the grammar specifics of a native Calamarian), he could have been speaking a sort of broken “english.” He could really have meant a wide variety of things based on the phrase “the forest moon of Endor,” since his english, like a number of non native speakers, would not be perfect.