How did the months get their names?
As the new year starts you might have recently bought a new diary or calendar and thought ‘Where do these words come from?’ – at least that’s what I did. There is also, of course, also the chance that you have been merrily scheduling in gym appointments and book clubs and all sorts of other details relating to New Year’s resolutions (have you kept yours so far?) but we’ll take the opportunity to add a resolution to your list: learn where we got the names for all the months of the year. Spoilers: it’s a mixture of gods, rulers, and numbers.
January is named after the Roman god Janus, who presided over doors and beginnings – appropriately enough, for the beginning of the year (though this is, as you will discover, not as straightforward as it seems). Indeed, Janus was usually depicted with two faces looking backwards and forwards, as is often characteristic of a new year; this also gave rise to the term Janus word for words that have two opposite meanings.
February is ultimately based on Latin februarius, from februa. In case that’s not helped things become clearer, februa was the name of a purification feast held on the 15th of this month. February is a divisive issue in modern pronunciation, with both Feb-yoo-ary and Feb-roo-ary being commonly heard.
Which god gets a planet and a month named after him? You’ve guessed it: Mars. Why him? As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, ‘In ancient Rome several festivals of Mars took place in March, presumably in preparation for the campaigning season, since Mars was a god of war.’
We know that the English word April comes from the Latin Aprillis, the fourth month of the ancient Roman calendar, but things are less clear after that. In Old English, April was also sometimes called Eastermonab, ‘Easter month’.
The month is connected with the goddess Maia. Perhaps less well known now than the other deities with months named after them, Maia (in Greek mythology) was daughter of Atlas and mother of Hermes. She was considered a nurturer and an earth goddess, which may explain the connection with this springtime month. Although may is a common modal verb, the month and the word are unrelated.
Having conceded one month to a Greek deity, we’re now back with the Romans: June is named after the ancient Roman goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter and goddess of marriage and childbirth. June was also once sometimes known as midsummer month.
The first month in the calendar named after a real person, July was named in honour of Julius Caesar after his death in 44 BC, July being the month of his birth. Before it was renamed, the month was known as Quintilis (borrowed into English as Quintile), which means ‘fifth’. If you’ve been counting, you’ll know that July isn’t the fifth month: we’ll come on to that when we reach September and October.
Following suit, in 8 BC, the month Sextilis (‘sixth’) was renamed after Augustus, the first Roman emperor and great-nephew to Julius Caesar. Augustus himself was given this title when he became emperor, having previously been known as Octavian. It came from the Latin augustus meaning ‘consecrated, venerable’ which gave rise to the English adjective august, ‘respected and impressive’.
September follows on from Quinitlis and Sextilis, in that it comes from the Latin septem, ‘seven’. As with those (and the rest of the calendar), the numbering is a bit off now: September was originally the seventh month in an ancient Roman ten-month calendar, which started with March.
More of the same: octo is the Latin for ‘eight’, for that ten month calendar. Two months were added to the end of the calendar year around 713 BC, and the beginning of the year was moved to 1 January in 153 BC.
The pattern continues: November comes from novem, ‘nine’. November is also, we’re afraid, used ‘with allusion to November’s position at the end of the year, and to the characteristic greyness, gloominess, etc., associated with it in the northern hemisphere’. The earliest known example of this allusive use comes from Jane Austen’s posthumously published novel Persuasion.
And we finish off the year with December, from decem, ‘ten’. The month also comes with a brace of adjectives: Decemberish and Decemberly, the latter of which can also be used as an adverb. And there you have it: a whole calendar year of etymologies to see you through the whole of 2016.