Monday, October 20, 2014

The names of the months

Sometimes I hear people complain about the uselessness of learning Latin. "It's a dead language", they say, "Nobody speaks it any more"... While it's true that it has stopped being the lingua franca, that is, the language in which people from different parts of the world were able to communicate, it's a matter of fact that the Western World is hugely indebted to the culture and language of the Romans, for so much of our own culture derives from it.
Latin is not dead

The calendar is a feature that reminds us of how indebted we are to the Romans. To begin with, the very word calendar comes from Kalenda, which was the first day of the month in Latin.

The old Roman calendar used to have ten months and the priests had to add some days at the end so that it kept with the solar year. Later, King Numa changed it to a 12 month year, adding January and February, which became the last months of the year.

Let's have a look at the names of the months in Latin:
  •  March. The Romans started the year with the month of Martius, devoted to Mars, the God of war. It was in this month when soldiers started their training.
  • April. Aprilis was devoted to the goddess Venus, and although it is uncertain where the name comes from, the Romans thought it came from aprire, which means to open.
  • May (Maius) derives its name from the goddess Maia, to whom a sow (female pig) was sacrificed on the first day of the month. Maia, mother of Mercury, was an earth goddess who promoted growth.
  • June. The month of Junius is devoted to Juno, Jupiter's wife and mother of several gods and goddesses.
  • July was originally called Quintilis, because it was the fifth month. (Remember that the year started in March). However, following Julius Caesar's death, it was called after him. 
  • August was originally Sextillis, that is the sixth month. Later, they changed its name for that of Octavius Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.
  • September is called so because it was originally the seventh month. Septem means "seven".
  • October used to be the eighth month. Octo is eight.
  • November comes from nove, or ninth month.
  • December was the tenth month, as decem means "ten".
  • January was named in honour of the god Janus, the deity related to beginnings and ends. He has two faces, one looking to the past, the other to the future.
  • February was the month of the purification rituals caled Februa, which used to be carried out in the middle of this month.


Some time in the second century BC, the order of the months was changed, and January became the first month and February the second, and so those months that had been named after ordinal numbers bore no relation to their original meanings any more.

It was Julius Caesar who, influenced by the Egyptian calendar, decided to make a new calendar that syncronized with the solar year. He decided that all twelve months should have 30 or 31 days, except February, which should have 29 and add one day once every four years, making it 30. However, when Octavius Augustus died and the month Sextilis was named after him, the Senate decided to add one day to this month, so that it had as many days as Julius's month, and they took this day from February, leaving it with just 28 days.
Julius caesar

Ceasar's calendar had to be reformed in the 16th Century by Pope Gregory XIII. The astrologists acknowledged that the spring equinox was happening on the 11th of March when it had to happen on the 21st, so they realized that there must be a mistake: the Julian calendar added one day every four years, believing that it took the earth 365.25 days to go around the sun, when in fact, it takes ten minutes less, 365.242, to be exact. A reformation was needed, so they decided to take action and shorten the year 1582 in ten days, and reduce the number of leap years so that those ending in 00 wouldn't be leap years any more, with the exception of those which are divisible by 400. So, the year 1900 was not a leap year, but 2000 was one.
Pope Gregory XIII

This reform was immediately accepted in all the Catholic countries, but not in Protestant, Orthodox or Anglican countries. In Britain and its colonies it was adopted in the year 1752. That's why, although they say that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the same day (23rd of April, 1616), this is not true, because the latter died ten days later, on May 5th, according to the Gregorian calendar.

The Gregorian calendar is not perfect, as it seems that it will have to be reformed by the year 3300. But, who is going to witness that day? And who's gonna care? 

Now do this quiz to see how much you have learnt:

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