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On A Self-Congratulatory Note

By Anatoly Liberman

This blog, now appearing every Wednesday, was launched a year ago. For reasons “incomprehensible even to a most expansive mind,” as one of Gogol’s characters put it in Dead Souls, I wrote 54 posts between March 2006 and March 2007, though everybody knows that a year contains 53 weeks at most. This is post #55. It would be interesting to hear from the regular readers of “The Oxford Etymologist” whether the content (the choice of topics and the answers to questions), format, and style of the blog satisfy them and whether it would be expedient to devote more attention to some other aspects of etymology. But today, since a year with its 54 Wednesdays has passed, I will discuss the names of the months.

They came to English from Latin or Old French and are therefore of Romance origin. One does not have to be a Latinist to notice that January and February have adjectival endings: compare stationary and honorary, among many others. But English words like secretary (a noun) and military (a noun and an adjective) have dulled our sensitivity to such niceties. However, January does go back to an adjective, for the full phrase in Latin was mensis Januarius “the month of Janus,” Janus being a double-faced deity (famous for the ability to see what is in front and behind, not for his duplicity). The word’s pronunciation and spelling have not been stable over the centuries. Its present form is the result of Latinization, as is clear from a look at Modern French janvier. In March, May, and June, we recognize the names of Mars (a war god), Maia (apparently, a goddess of growth and vegetation, though she has almost no mythology), and Juno (a goddess connected with the sexual life of women, and later a great goddess of the State). By contrast, July and August owe their existence to human vanity. They commemorate Caius Julius Caesar (who was born in July) and Augustus. Caesar himself, while reforming the calendar—known as the Julian calendar–imposed the new name on Quintilis, the traditional fifth month of the Roman year (the first was March). It will come as no surprise that before Augustus, the first Roman emperor, bestowed a permanent honor on himself, “his” month had been called Sextilis. Since no more dictators had to be gratified, the Roman world could return to numerals: September, October, November, and December (“seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth” respectively). The decrees of the French revolution show that renaming months is the simplest thing imaginable.

The only unresolved puzzle in English is the stress in the word July. In the middle of the 18th century, stress already fell on the second syllable. When words are used in close-knit groups, such as numerals (when we count, we say: one, two, three…), the days of the week, and the names of the months, they tend to influence one another. Is it possible that, since in the “series” June, Jule… (the Middle English form Jule has been attested) the difference between June and Jule was hard to hear, the pronunciation of July changed through what may be called natural repulsion or was altered intentionally by learned people, to avoid the confusion?

February, like March and June, was dedicated to a god, this time to Lupercus Februus, surnamed so from februa “Lupercalia,” a Roman festival of purification and expiation. It was celebrated on the 15th of that month. The word februa, the plural of februum, “a means of purification” is of Sabine origin. February makes one think of fever, and indeed, in Ancient Rome febris was the numen (deity) of fever. (A note on fever. In England, it was borrowed from Latin before the Norman Conquest and later reinforced, when Anglo-French fevre entered the language.) This leaves us with April, the continuation of the Latin adjective aprilis. Traditionally, April has been thought to belong with the Lain verb aperire “open” (compare aperture and aperitif, unless you want to compare it with aperient, a technical word for “laxative”), because in this month the earth opens to produce new fruits or because it frees itself from snow. In principle, this is a reasonable idea, for months frequently get their names from the natural phenomena that characterize them, and the existence of Old German aber “sonny” seemed to give the connection aprilis-aperire additional weight. But etymology, like all reconstruction, has to look at both individual phenomena and patterns. In the Roman calendar, with its focus on divinities and numerals, not a single month has such a poetic appellation, and the existence of a single exception is unlikely. Furthermore, German aber should be disassociated from Latin aprilis. According to another conjecture, April is akin to Aphrodite.

Latin and French exercised an immense influence on all the West European languages. But medieval books and living dialects have retained some older, pre-Romance names of the months. Occasionally they do not antedate the conversion of “barbarians” to Christianity. Thus, in Germany, April was for some time called ostarmanod, that is, “Easter month.” However, most native names of the months have a descriptive character (of the type many etymologists wanted April to be). The Old English for February was (in modernized spelling) solmonath “mud month.” Most Germans will recognize the word Hornung “February.” Its origin has been a matter of unending debate. From Horn “horn” (because it is the shortest month) or from Harn “urine” (earlier “mud, dirt”; then a counterpart of Old English solmonath)? Several inconclusive hypotheses exist on that score.

A final remark. It is not necessary to begin months the way we do it. In rural Iceland, the words denoting January-February, February-March, March-April, and April-May still have some currency. Those names are hyphenated, because the division into periods in the traditional Icelandic calendar has nothing to do with the first of March, April, May, and so forth. For instance, “April-May” begins on the so-called first summer day (the 18th of April) and ends on the first Friday after the 18th of May. It is called harpa, and the few conjectures on its origin carry no conviction. The strangest thing is that this word, which must be ancient, did not turn up in the sagas and was recorded only in the 17th century.

The literature on the names of the months is vast. It reads like a thriller, for the history of the calendar provides a window at religion, at observations of nature made by the people of old days, and, of course, at language contacts. Etymology is the most “cultured” area of linguistics.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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