Word for word: Where do gods go when they die (or how our modern months found their names)
Word for Word is a new monthly column illuminating the origins of words we use every day. Please let us know what you think in the comments box below or email your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
We bury the old gods in our language, using their tombstones to mark the cycle of the years
Canada’s time in Afghanistan made us familiar with the spring fighting season, when the winter lull ends and enemies clash once more.
The world was much the same 2,000 years ago, when Roman Legions attacked enemies in the first month of spring, which was originally also the first month of their year. The Romans named the martial month after the god of war, Mars, to flatter him and increase their chances of victory.
Mars ranked second only to Jupiter and also served as the god of farming. Latin-speaking Romans called the month mensis Martius and over the centuries English speakers shaved that down to March. French, which began as a dialect of Latin, kept the original spelling for their month Mars. (The war god also gave us “martial.”)
TS Eliot called April the cruelest month, but the name seems to have originally come from the Latin word aperire, meaning to open or bloom. (Your camera’s “aperture” springs from the same root, as does “aperitif,” your opening drink before a meal.)
Another theory holds that the Romans probably named their second month for Aphrilis, a Latin version of Aphrodite, the repurposed Greek love goddess. (She also gave us aphrodisiac.)
May is another Roman gift, originating as mensis Maius, or the month of Maia (menstruation comes from mensis, which means monthly). Maia was worshipped as the deity of growth.
Another theory holds that May is named not for the goddess, but for the Latin maiores, meaning “ancestors”. Under that theory, May’s celebration of ancestors is matched by mensis Iuniores the next month, a month for the “younger ones,” with June emerging from centuries of mispronunciation. (“Junior” comes from the same root.)
Others argue June is named for Juno, the Roman goddess of Canadian music. Juno holds the dual titles of sister and wife of Jupiter, the most important god in the Roman pantheon (a compound of two Latin words: pan for all and theos for gods).
July displays the eternal glory available to tyrants. Breaking Bad anti-hero Walter White demanded his enemies, “Say my name,” but his nominal ambition is dwarfed by Julius Caesar. Before Christ was born, Caesar demanded the whole world say his name. Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 BC and named the fifth month for himself. Dutifully, under the warm summer skies of our lives, we invoke the name of Rome’s greatest tyrant over and over: July comes from Julius.
The tyrannical hold on summer continues in August, when we unwittingly pay tribute to the great Augustus Caesar, successor to Julius.
I think the month-namers grew bored here, because they run out the year with months called Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth month respectively. In Latin, that’s september, october, novembris and december. (That last one gave us several English words, including decimal, decimate and decade.)
And there you have it: the origins of all the months of the year.
Of course we’re missing our first few months. When Caesar redid the calendar, he moved the start of the year to January 1 and named it for Janus, god of doors and gates and owner of two faces: one to look back on the setting year, and one to look ahead to the rising year. Previously, Romans didn’t bother naming the bleak winter months.
Some parts of Europe didn’t adapt their calendars until the 1500s and 1700s. Those who continued to celebrate the new year in late March or at the start of April were derided as April Fools.
The origins of our last month, February, offers solace to the lonely hearts enduring Valentine’s Day. The Romans named it for Februarius, the festival of spiritual purification.