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All in a day’s work: the days of the week

The Latin days of the week in imperial Rome were named after the planets, which in turn were named after gods. These names were adopted in translated form by the English and other Germanic peoples. In most cases the Germanic names have substituted the Roman god’s name with that of a comparable one from the Germanic pantheon.

Tell me why … I don’t like Moondays

Monday was traditionally regarded as the second day of the week, but is now frequently considered the first, following the weekend. The word for this day comes from old English Mōnandæg or ‘day of the moon’, and is a translation of late Latin lunae dies. You can see the Latin origin more clearly in the Romance languages: lunedi (Italian), lundi (French), and lunes (Spanish).

According to the OED, ‘Monday’ is also slang for a large, heavy sledgehammer – perhaps so called because the hard work involved in the use of the hammer provides a shock similar to coming back to work on a Monday. In a similar vein, a ‘Monday head’ is rare slang for a hangover following the excesses of the weekend.

Tuesday: a perfect day to pick fights with everyone

The word Tuesday can be traced back to the Old English form Tīwesdæg. This day is named after the Germanic god Tīw, the god of war in ancient Germany. The Romans identified him with their Mars, so the original Latin for this day of the week is dies Marti, or ‘day of Mars’, which can again be seen in Italian (martedi), French (mardi), and Spanish (martes).

Wensday? Whensday? Wendsday? Oh, Wednesday!

The tricky-to-spell name for this day comes from the Old English Wōdnesdæg, named after the god Odin (also Woden or Wotan). Odin is the principal god in Norse mythology: he is considered to be the god of wisdom, culture, war and death. He lived with the Valkyries in Valhalla, where he received the souls of dead warriors.

According to the OED, a variant of the god’s name can also be seen in English place names such as Wensley, Wednesbury, and Wednesfield.

Mighty Maundy?

As with the other days of the week, the name for Thursday comes via late Latin: originally, it is Jovis dies, the day of Jupiter. Jupiter is the god associated with thunder in Roman mythology, so the Old English translation is Thu(n)resdæg, literally ‘day of thunder’ – compare this with Dutch donderdag and German Donnerstag, which share the same origin.

A day of thunder may not be welcomed by everybody, but there is one Thursday that has a positive connotation: in the UK, a public ceremony is held on the Thursday before Easter (known as Maundy Thursday), at which the monarch distributes specially minted coins or Maundy money.

Put your Friday face away

Friday comes from the Old English Frīgedæg, named after the Germanic goddess Frigga – the wife of Odin and goddess of married love and of the hearth, often identified with Freya, goddess of love and of night. This in turn is a translation of late Latin Veneris dies: ‘day of the planet Venus’.

Counter-intuitively, to be ‘Friday-faced’ is to wear a serious or gloomy expression. According to the OED this use dates back to the sixteenth century and is now chiefly archaic. It probably refers to Friday as a day of fasting, with the nagging food deprivation presumably causing the gloom and doom.

But for many, Fridays are a good thing – the start of the weekend, celebrated in the abbreviation TGIF – with perhaps only the threat of a sledgehammer-like ‘Monday head’ to keep the festivities from getting out of hand.