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The term derives from the once widespread superstition, present in many European folk traditions, that such malformed creatures were the product of the sinister influence of the Moon on fetal development. The earliest recorded use of the term was in 1565, referring to a human false pregnancy.
Mooncalf is used as a derogatory term indicating someone is a dullard, fool or otherwise not particularly bright or sharp. For example, W. C. Fields in The Bank Dick (1940) advises his prospective son-in-law to avoid being a "mooncalf" by buying shares he has been conned into believing are worth much more than the proffered price.
Mooncalf is also the name of a species of magical creatures in the world of the Harry Potter series. It is described in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as a shy, nocturnal creature with a smooth, pale grey body, bulging eyes and four spindly legs with large flat feet. Mooncalves perform dances in the moonlight, and are apparently responsible for crop circles. In the film of the same name and its sequel, Newt Scamander's collection of creatures in his suitcase includes a herd of Mooncalves.
Wilfred Maxwell, narrator and protagonist of occultist Dion Fortune’s 1938 novel, The Sea Priestess, refers several times to a mentally disabled character who falls into the sea and disappears as a "mooncalf".
In Embassytown by China Miéville, the protagonist refers to two characters as "mooncalf and quite impossible."
- Quinion, Michael. "Mooncalf". World Wide Words. Retrieved 8 May 2019.
- Wells, H. G. (1901). "Chapter 11: The Mooncalf Pastures". The First Men in the Moon.
- Rowling, J. K. (2001). "An A–Z of Fantastic Beasts". Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
- Fortune, Dion (1978) . The Sea Priestess. Chapter X, p. 86, et infra.