By Anatoly Liberman
The history of the names of the months is an intriguing topic. Most of Europe adopted the Roman names and some of them are trivial: September (seventh), October (eighth), November (ninth), and December (tenth). (Though one would wish the numerals to have reached twelve.) But there is nothing trivial in the division of the year into twelve segments and the world shows great ingenuity assigning names to them.
The Romans dedicated most of their months to the gods and one doesn’t need a dictionary to guess who was honored in January or March. (We still have janitors and plenty of martial arts.) February and May are less transparent to modern speakers, but the principle behind naming them was the same. Before the Anglo-Saxons adopted the names still in use, they had their own system. King Alfred’s calendar looked so:
- Geola se æftera “later Yule” (æ has the value of Modern Engl. a in at)
- sol-monað, approximately “mud month” (that is, if sol had a short vowel; sol with a long vowel meant “sun,” but the name of a winter month was unlikely to contain reference to the sun; Old Engl. ð and þ designated the sounds we hear in Modern Engl. thy and thigh respectively, but for simplicity’s sake I will use only ð here)
- hreð-monað (several doubtful interpretations: glorious month?)
- Easter-monað “Easter month” (Easter is a pre-Christian word; people may have believed in a goddess called Eostre, but the evidence is scanty)
- ðrimilce (monað) (a month in which cows can be milked three times)
- liða se ærra (liða meant “month,” apparently, related to liðe “mild”; the term was more specific than monað, and the whole meant “the earlier liða”)
- liða se æfterra “the later liða,” “the liða after”
- weod-monað “grass month” (weod has yielded Modern Engl. “weed”)
- hærfest-monað “harvest month”
- winterfylleð (fylleð from fyllan “to fell”?)
- blot-monað “sacrificial month”
- ærra geola “earlier Yule”
Other Germanic speaking peoples had their own names of the months, some of which defy interpretation. For instance, German Hornung “February” has been the object of much clever guessing. Even when the year is divided into twelve segments, the beginning and end of each month doesn’t necessarily coincide with our first and last day. For example, in Iceland, one of the traditional months lasted from the middle of Europe’s January to the middle of February, and the next from the middle of February to the middle of March. Now Iceland has the same system as the rest of the Western world and the old words are being remembered less and less. Capricious dictators liked changing the names of the months. Among the Roman names, July and August stand out as not being dedicated to any god. And indeed, Latin Julius replaced quin(c)tilius after Caius Julius Cæsar’s death and apotheosis. Obviously, it would have been tactless not to honor his illustrious successor in a similar way, so the sixtilis of Republican Rome was named after Emperor Augustus. At the height of the French Revolution, all the months were renamed. Of those, most people (at least outside France) will easily recall only Germinal (from March 21 to April 19, a month of “germination”), thanks to the title of Émile Zola’s famous novel or the film(s) based on it.
Of all our names of the months, April has the most convoluted history. The Romans called it Aprilis mensis, and it seems natural to suppose that in the adjective Aprilis the name of some deity is hidden, but none of the Roman gods or goddesses provides a good match. Aphrodite has been suggested as a possible candidate. Although the match is far from perfect, we will return to it below. Other suggestions have also been made.
In Ancient Rome, April was the second month of a year and the calendar made some use of ordinal numerals before the word mensis. (Compare quintilis (July) and sextilis (August), mentioned above.) Such colorless names devoid of religious connotations were easy to replace with new ones. Hence the idea that originally the first syllable of Aprilis was ab “from,” a prefix and a preposition with ties in and outside Germanic (of is one of its cognates, as is its late doublet off) and present in numerous English borrowings from Latin and Old French, such as abdicate, abduct, abscond, absolve, and the rest. The Latins allegedly forgot the meaning of aprilis, whereupon folk etymology connected it with aperire “opening” (compare Engl. aperture) and took it for a contraction of aperilis (unrecorded). We will return to ap– next week in connection with another apr-English word. (Can you guess it? Not much to choose from. If you cannot, stay in unbearable suspense.)
Skeat probably found the aprire etymology plausible. In any case, he wrote that April is said to be so named because the earth then opens to produce new fruit. “Is said” served him as a safeguard, but since he mentioned this idea, he could not look on it as totally indefensible. Medieval German had the noun æber “snow-free place,” related to Latin apricum “sunny,” a tolerably good sense to associate with April. But if at any time the word in question began with ab, what did the rest of it mean? What is ril-?
The Century Dictionary usually followed Skeat. However, in this case it added the necessary qualification: “…usually but, fancifully, regarded as if… from aperire, the month when the earth ‘opens’ to produce new fruits.” (The emphasis is of course mine; note fruits for Skeat’s fruit.) The English word was first borrowed from Latin and later reborrowed from Anglo-French (hence the Middle English variants with v: averil, averel, and others). The Modern French for April is avril, but the Modern English form was made to look like its distant Latin source.
When a Latin word defies all attempts at explaining its origin, it is customary to resort to Etruscan. Unlike the pre-Germanic substrate about which something was said in the post on herring, the Etruscan language has not been completely lost. Several hundred Etruscan words, including a few divine names (theonyms, as they are called in special works), have come down to us and their meaning has been ascertained with a fair degree of confidence. One of such words is allegedly apru, from Greek Aphro– “Aphrodite.” Referring to Apru is the only way to etymologize April as “the month of Venus” (Venus being the Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess). This hypothesis takes a good deal for granted. No other month of the Roman calendar owes its name to Etruscan. So why just April? If at the time of presumed borrowing the Latins understood the meaning of apru (Apru), why didn’t they replace it with Venus? All things considered, the Etruscan origin of April is hardly more convincing than the others we have examined here. None of the tentative suggestions discussed above looks pervasive. The Romans had no clearer idea of the etymology that interests us than we do (a small comfort).
I’ll finish by adding insult to injury. The origin of All Fools’ Day is unknown too and there are as many conjectures about it as about the etymology of April. But it isn’t fortuitous that the festival is held at the vernal equinox, when “the earth opens to receive new fruit(s)” and the world rejoices. This is the time for carnivals, tomfoolery, and relaxation. So let us not take our etymological ignorance too seriously. What else could be expected of the name of such a month?
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 him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”