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Beware the hares of March

When I think about the month of March, two things spring to mind: the March hare from Alice in Wonderland and the familiar quotation from Julius Caesar:  ‘Beware the ides of March’. In my mind, the two have become somewhat conflated, so I always picture ‘the ides of March’ as a posse of incongruously terrifying bunny-rabbits …. But maybe that’s just me.

What are the ides of March really?

In the ancient Roman calendar, the ides fall on a day roughly in the middle of the month: the fifteenth of March, May, July, and October, and the thirteenth of other months. According to Plutarch, a soothsayer told Julius Caesar to ‘beware the ides of March’, as a forewarning of his impending assassination on the fifteenth of that month (Adonis to Zorro: Oxford Dictionary of Reference and Allusion).

Calculating dates using nones and calends

Two other similar, less familiar, words also exist in English: nones and calends (or kalends). Nones fall on the ninth day before the ides (so the seventh of March, May, July, and October, and the fifth of the other months), while calends refer to the first day of the month, according to the ancient Roman calendar. These three words were also used as markers from which to calculate other dates. According to the OED:

The Romans reckoned the days forward to the Kalends, Nones, or Ides next following. Thus, ‘on the 27th of May’ was ‘ante diem sextum Kalendas Junias’. This was loosely rendered into English as ‘the sixth of the Kalends of June’, or ‘the sixth Kalends of June’.

So the next time someone asks you when your birthday is, why not use calends, nones, or ides to tell them the date?

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