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Just Plutonic? Roman gods and their relationship to the days of the week

When I was a kid. . .

Yeah, you know where I’m going with this one. Pluto was a planet. Discovered in 1930, Pluto enjoyed renown as the 9th planet in our solar system for 76 years, until in 2006 the International Astronomical Union declared it to be a dwarf planet. Poor Pluto: the last planet to be discovered and the first to be demoted. Pluto was famously named after the Roman god of the underworld by an Oxford schoolgirl who knew that the planets in our solar system have been named after Roman gods: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Sunday, Monday, Happy Days

It’s not just the planets that have been named after these deities: our days of the week are named after them as well. Many cultures mark time by observing a full phase of the moon roughly equivalent to a month; in many languages the word month comes from the word moon. The Romans, however, took this one step further, naming the seven days of the week after the seven celestial bodies that are visible to the naked eye (and therefore were known to the imperial Romans): the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.

The influence of the Roman Empire on the names of the days of the week can still be seen today in English and many other modern European languages. Since we’ve recently added French, German, Italian, and Spanish dictionaries to OxfordDictionaries.com, let’s look at the days in these languages as well.

I say ‘potato’, you say ‘potahto’

English Roman god/Celestial body Latin French Italian Spanish
Sunday sol dies Sōlis,
dies Dominica
dimanche domenica domingo
Monday luna dies Lūnae lundi lunedì lunes
Tuesday Mārs (Mars) dies Martis mardi martedì martes
Wednesday Mercurius
dies Mercuriī mercredi mercoledì miércoles
Thursday Jove/Iuppiter
dies Jovis jeudi giovedì jueves
Friday Venus dies Veneris vendredi venerdì viernes
Saturday Saturnus
dies Saturnī,
dies Sabbati
samedi sabato sábado

From the table above, we can see how the Latin names for the days of the week have developed into the French, Italian, and Spanish forms.  The only notable differences are for Sunday and Saturday. Sunday in Latin has two different words: dies Sōlis (the sun’s day) and dies Dominica (our lord’s day). Dies Sōlis is the older form, and dies Dominica developed when Christianity became more prevalent in late Roman culture, so it is not surprising that the French, Italian, and Spanish words for Sunday follow the later Latin form. Similarly with Saturday, the classical Latin dies Saturnī (Saturn’s Day) gave way to the later form dies Sabbati (the Sabbath day).

By Jove, I think you’ve got it!

Roman god/
Celestial body
Old English equivalent English German
sol sunne Sunday Sonntag
luna mona Monday Montag
Mārs (Mars) Tīw Tuesday Dienstag
Wōden Wednesday Mittwoch
þunor (Thunder) Thursday Donnerstag
Venus Frīg Friday Freitag
Saturnus (Saturn) Saturnus Saturday Sonnabend,

Although our days of the week are not named directly after the Roman gods, they are named after the equivalent Anglo-Saxon/Germanic pantheon of gods and display Roman influences. In fact, English is one of the few Germanic languages to reference the original classical Latin names for days of the week – just look at Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday and compare with the German. Tuesday in today’s German is Dienstag which means ‘council day’. An older form of Tuesday, however, was Ziestag, Ziu being the Germanic equivalent of the Old English Tīw, which are both associated with Mārs. Mittwoch means ‘mid-week’, but there are other archaic words for Wednesday, including Wodenstag. With Samstag, Saturday in German follows the Sabbath convention we saw with the Romance languages, but it also has another word: Sonnabend which means ‘eve of Sunday’ (think Christmas Eve).

Plutosday or Plutonday?

Sadly Pluto never had a day of the week named after it; the Ancient Romans didn’t even know that the dwarf planet was orbiting at the edge of our solar system.  It’s a shame. I think there’s a place for Plutosday, maybe as the name for the UK’s August bank holiday, or for Labor day in the US?

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