By Anatoly Liberman
This is a weekly blog, and ever since it began I have been meaning to write a post about the word week. Now that we are in the middle of the first week of the first summer month, the time appears to be ripe for my overdue project.
In Latin there was the word calendae (plural) “the first day of the month.” These dates were “called out” or proclaimed publicly (from calare “proclaim,” not related to Engl. call, unless we take into account the fact that the syllables kal ~ kol ~ gal ~ gol designate “voice” in many languages; therefore, all such words may go back to the same sound imitative complex). The calendae were “called out” because interest was due on the first day of the month; therefore, money changers’ account books of interest got the name calendaria. Fortunately, our calendar (from Latin via Old French) does not remind us of debts and taxes only. Unlike calendar, week is possibly a Germanic word. Why “possibly” will become clear at the end of the post.
We will pass over the question about the origin of the seven day week but remember that, according to the Bible, the creation of the world took a week. Consequently, after the Christianization of Europe a word designating the seven day week had to be coined. Among the Germanic speakers the Goths were the first to be converted to Christianity (this happened in the 4th century), and long fragments of the Gothic Bible have come down to us, though almost only of the New Testament. As a result, we do not know how their bishop Wulfila translated, or would have translated, the Hebrew (or the Greek) word for “week.” The possibilities for naming the week are not too few. For example, Russian nedelia (stress on the second syllable), with cognates everywhere in Slavic, means “day on which no work is done”; the transference to “week” came later. A curious anti-parallel to nedelia may be Sardinian chida ~ chedda “week,” if, as has been suggested, it is a borrowing of Greek khedos “sorrow,” with reference to work and the “suffering” it entails. Yet for the Western translators of the Bible the main sources of inspiration were the ecclesiastic words containing the root for “seven,” namely, Latin septimana and Greek hebdomas. Hence Modern French semaine, Italian settimana, and Spanish semana. But Spanish also has hebdomada, and similar words have been recorded in many old and new Romance dialects.
We can now look at Germanic. In Gothic, the word wikon, the dative of the otherwise unattested wiko, occurred. It means “sequence” (not “week”!) and glosses Greek taxei, the dative of taxis (Engl. tactics, taxidermy, and taxonomy have its root). In the Latin version of Luke I: 8, ordine corresponds to Greek taxei and Gothic wiko. Old Engl. wice ~ wicu is akin to Gothic wiko, and at first sight their etymology poses no difficulty, for they seem to be related to the Germanic verbs for “move, turn; retreat; yield” (German weichen, Icelandic víkja, Old Engl. wician, and others). However, what exactly “moves” or “turns” during a week remains unclear, and various explanations have been offered, none fully convincing. Some Germanic cognates of week differ from the English noun considerably (compare German Woche and Danish uge), but they are still variants of the same word and mean the same, except Old Icelandic vika, which has two senses: “week” and “nautical mile.” Perhaps vika, before it acquired the meaning “week,” referred to the change of shifts in rowing. In my post on the etymology of Viking, I supported the idea that Vikings were called this from taking turns at the oars. Such was hardly the origin of Old Engl. wicu and Old High German wehha ~ wohha, but some general sense like “shift at work” is not unthinkable.
Every now and then a certain form turns up that should almost certainly be accepted as a cognate of the word under discussion, but it contradicts a phonetic law and ends up among the rejects. Compare what has been said above about Latin calare and Engl. call (call is a borrowing of Old Norse kalla). Germanic k is not supposed to correspond to Latin k, for the “law” requires either Latin g : Germanic k or Latin k : Germanic h. It so happens that alongside Gothic wiko we have Latin vicis, the genitive of a noun that for some reason never occurred in the nominative (one could have expected vix). The word meant “change; misfortune; recompense; position; duty.” The choice is broad, but “change” corresponds to our idea of the oldest meaning of week, and “duty” matches “shift (at work).” Latin vicis and other case forms are very much alive in English: in vice versa and vice-consul, vice is the ablative of the nonexistent vix (vice- “in place of”), while vicissitude(s) (from Old French) speaks of mutability and misfortunes. The problem is that the root of both week and vicis ends in the consonant k. Although this difficulty has been explained away, it has not disappeared. The troublesome conclusion is that wiko and the rest may have nothing to do with Old Icelandic víkja and Old Engl. wician, but are borrowings of Latin vicis. Borrowing would account for the identity of the root final consonants. The only advocate of this uncomfortable idea was Friedrich Kluge, the author of a great etymological dictionary of German. He remained in the minority, but this does not mean that he was wrong.
As so often, we are left with two equally probable solutions that cancel each other out. However, if week is akin to the verbs mentioned above, then it is also akin to weak, Dutch week, German weich “soft,” and Icelandic veikr; all of them are related to those verbs and mean, from a historical point of view, “yielding, pliant, flexible.” Such is the unfinished history of week, which entails the organization of labor, the need for a Biblical term, and inflexible (unyielding) sound laws.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”