Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Etymology of Our Calendar: Part 1

Since last week's extensive look at Latin, I've had Roman culture on the brain. Almost two years ago we looked at the etymology of our week (in English, at least), and we're now finally going to focus on the 12 months that make up the year, at least in the Gregorian calendar. Let's dive straight in...


The first month of the year, like many others, gets its name from Latin. Originally, it was called Ianarius mensis, meaning "month of Janus", the two-faced Roman god of traditions and beginnings. When I say two-faced, I mean that he actually had two faces, not that he was bitchy and gossipy. Janus used one face to look forward to the future and the other to look back into the past.

The Arch of Janus, Rome
While naming January after Janus seems more than appropriate, there is evidence suggesting that the month also belongs to Juno, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, the queen of the gods, and the mother of both Mars (the god of war, destruction, and masculinity) and Vulcan (the god of fire and volcanoes). What a terrible pair of kids!

Ianarius (without the mensis) made its way into Old French and Old North French as Genever and Jenvier respectively before it replaced an Old English term and became the commonly-used term for the month.


February was originally februarius mensis. The name came from februare, which means "purify". This makes February "the month of purification", though after New Year's Eve, I reckon that maybe February should be the first month of the year. In Old English, the month was known as solmonaΓ°, which meant "mud month".

Just like "January", "February" was borrowed from the Old French Feverier before its spelling was altered to February, conforming with Latin in the 15th century.


March is one of the few calendar months in English that sounds like an English word. However, it comes from Latin just like the others. Martius mensis was the "month of Mars",  paying homage to Juno's son and the god of war. The term made its way into English from Anglo-French and Old French marche and marz respectively.

For some goddesses, such as Venus, having a planet
named after you just isn't enough...

April was known as avril in Old French before it was used in English as aueril, the name of the fourth month. Like other names of the months, it was changed to be more similar to Latin at the time and became apprile towards the end of the 14th century.

In its original form, it was known as mensis Aprilis, the "month of Venus", and was the second month in the Roman calendar. This discrepancy between the orders of the months will become apparent later, so keep that in mind for the latter half of the year when we get to it.


May was mai in Old French and Maius mensis in Latin. This name meant little more than "month of May". Original, right? It is thought to be a reference to Maia, a Greek goddess who was the wife of Vulcan and the Roman goddess of earth. However, it may have also been a completely different Maia who happened to share the name.


June, like January may have been, was named after Juno. I feel that this is much more convincing as a month for Juno, basing my opinion on little more than it sounding similar. However, if you need more convincing, the Latin name of the month was Iunius mensis, with Iunius thought to be from Iuononius, meaning "sacred to Juno".

We think six months in a day is more than enough, so we'll be back on Friday with the rest of the year. We'll see you then!

Part 1 | Part 2

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