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Dennis Marek: Where the heck did we get the names for our months?

February 18, 2019

As we commence this new year of 2019, it doesn’t come off as a special year. One hundred years ago, World War I was well over. Two hundred years ago, the war of 1812 with Britain was well past, and the Star Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key while on board a British warship bombarding the shores of our new country, became our new National Anthem. So, there isn’t some major anniversary for 2019.

Instead, I looked at the name of January and wondered where it came from. Even more interesting were the names of September, October, November and December, misnamed at best.

A bit of research showed the names of our months came from three very different sources: Greek and Roman deities, Roman rulers and plain old numbers.

September came from a Latin derivative of the word septem, meaning seventh, but it is the ninth month. October came from the Latin octo or eight, but it is the 10th month. Likewise November is derived from the Latin word novem or ninth, and it is the 11th month. And then there is December coming from the word decem meaning 10 or 10th, and yet it is the 12th month. Such a mystery.

So, I went back to the beginning. January is named after Janus the Roman god of beginnings and endings. That god presided over doors and gates. How appropriate for the first month of the year. Janus often was depicted with two faces, one forward and one backward. Again, a very appropriate way to name that month.

February is the month of cleansing, named for the Roman purification festival held the 15th of the month. I never knew I was born as part of the cleansing process. I even learned it originally was pronounced as it is spelled, FEB-roo-ER-ee, not as we often do, FEB-yoo-ER-ee. Well, that was a long time ago.

That gets us to March, a very special month. It is named after the Roman god and planet Mars. March was festival month itself as the weather began to ease in old Rome. Thus it once was called the first month of the year in really old Roman times. But the order of the months would change like the weather.

April is derived from the Latin Aprillis or apero meaning second and as such was behind the first month of March. While we all know special people and events that happened in April, it was not a particularly noteworthy month for Romans.

The month of May makes more sense. The name comes from the Greek goddess Maia, daughter of Atlas and mother of Hermes. She was the nurturer of the soil and an earth goddess. What better a name than for the commencement of the first plantings in southern Europe? The flowers began to bloom.

June comes from the goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter and the goddess of marriage. Now, that should ring a bell with many. The month of so many marriages.

July became the first month named after a real person (unless you believe the deities were persons later elevated to the positions of god and goddess). Of course, the name came from Julius Caesar but not until after his assassination. I guess he never got to see his month.

August is a bit more convoluted. At first, this month was named Sextilis (no, not after some word that comes after marriage), the Roman word for sixth. Later, this month was renamed after Caesar’s nephew and second Roman ruler, Augustus. That root word was “augustus,” giving rise to our word “august,” meaning with respect and impressive. Wish I had been born in August. But it is my half-birthday.

But all this changed in 46 B.C. when January and February became the first and second months under the new Julian calendar, making the names for September, October, November and December wrong but quaint.

So, there you have the reasons for the names and their inconsistencies. I hope we are done naming months after leaders. Our president might fit the January definitions of beginnings and endings, or perhaps July, with our new House majority leader following in August, after the demise (or replacement) of a previous leader. Just joking.