In an earlier post, I wrote about the etymology of the English words for the days of the week. As we saw there, those words have their origin (for the most part) in the names of some of the main deities of the Germanic pantheon. In this post we’ll look at the names of the months and their origin. As you’ll find out, there’s plenty of mythology in there, too – Roman one, this time. And some Latin vocabulary: while Old English had its own names for the months, eventually the Latin terminology was adopted, as is the case with many other languages around the world.
The word comes from the Latin term for the first month – Ianuarius, which comes from the name of the Roman god Ianus (also spelled Janus). Ianus is a god of doorways, passages and portals, also of beginnings and endings in general. His very name is related to the Latin word ianua, which literally means ‘door’. To symbolize the liminal nature of this god, in classical times he was represented with two faces – one looking to the past, the other to the future.
The name of the second month also comes from a Latin word – Februarius. However, that one is not a name of a god; it refers to Roman wintertime purification rites known as februa (sg. februum), thus the meaning of this month is ‘the month of cleansing’.
The old Roman calendar initially had only ten months, and the year used to begin with March (January and February were added at a later point; remember this when we get to September!). This month got its name after Mars, the Roman god of war. And peace, I should add. On the one hand, this time of year was when military campaigns used to start. On the other hand, at peacetime, it would be the beginning of the farming season. Mars was specially honoured in March and October, marking the beginning and the end of the agricultural year. This leads us back to the original purpose of the calendar in early agricultural societies – to mark the key points relevant for sowing and reaping.
This word comes from the Latin Aprilis, but with this one the etymology is not quite clear, and there are different theories as to what it actually means. The most popular one is that it comes from the verb aperire, ‘to open’, signifying the opening of flowers in springtime.
The name of this month, Latin Maius, literally means ‘Maia’s month’. Maia is a somewhat complicated character, as there is both a Greek goddess Maia, and a Latin one with the same name. They merged in classical times and it’s difficult to tell them apart, but in any case, the connection between the cult of Maia and this part of the year has to do with the celebration of fertility – a connection that has remained in many customs and traditions we now associate with Easter.
Latin Junius also has an unclear etymology and there are several theories about its meaning. The common explanation is that it derives from the name of the goddess Juno. In Roman mythology, she is the wife of Jupiter, honoured as a goddess of marriage, among many other things. She is a fascinating deity with many different roles and epithets, and was clearly very important in Roman culture and belief system.
The original Roman name of this month was Quintilis (‘the fifth month’), but was renamed by the Senate in 44 BCE in honour of the famous Roman statesman and military dictator Julius Caesar.
Similar to July, this month also went by a different name originally. It was known as Sextilis (‘the sixth month’) but was renamed in honour of another Roman statesman – actually, Rome’s first emperor Caesar Augustus, in the year 8 BCE.
The names of the final four months are derived from numbers, just like July and August initially were:
SEPTEMBER from Latin septem – seven;
OCTOBER from Latin octo – eight;
NOVEMBER from Latin novem – nine;
DECEMBER from Latin decem – ten.
Do you know the origin of the names of the months in your mother tongue? The etymology of this segment of vocabulary can be very unusual – please share below any interesting pieces of information you might like to share!