This week’s idiom is “ogni morte di papa”. In English you would say “every once in a blue moon” to describe something that recurs but not often.
The literal translation of the Italian idiom is “every death of a pope”. The last pontiff to pass away was Pope John Paul II, whose pontificate, the second longest in history, lasted over 26 years. However in centuries past, popes, being elected while already at a senior age, were not known for lengthy stays on St. Peter’s throne. For example, the average term for a pope elected in the 17th century was approximately eight and a half years. Since the Pope’s term came to a close upon his death, the expression “ogni morte di papa” derived from the few year frequency in which a pope was elected and then passed away.
In English, a language that developed much further away from Vatican City, the expression “once every blue moon” based itself on the lunar pattern of the full moon. When a full moon occurs twice in a calendar month, the second occurrence is called the “blue moon”. Since the completion of the lunar cycle takes 29.53 calendar days, those leftover days carry over, and once every two or three years, one single month will host two full moons. Like the coming of a new pope, the blue moon is both inevitable yet infrequent.
This week, the world also received the news that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning his office, breaking the centuries of tradition wherein a pontiff lives out his entire term. If a new papal tradition is beginning, who knows what may happen to this Italian idiom?