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In a Word -- All about English Vocabulary

Months and the Days of the Week

© John Keith 2005

In a Word was originally written for the ESL Egg, a Vancouver publication and website for ESL students.

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Happy New Year to Egg readers! The start of the new year is the time to think about new beginnings, and as we saw in the first issue, an egg is the symbol of new beginnings and new life.

Springtime is also the beginning of new life, so why don't we celebrate New Year's Eve in the spring? Well, when the Julian calendar was in use through the Middle Ages, New Year's was celebrated in the spring. However, the Gregorian calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 as an "updated" version of the Julian calendar, and celebration of New Year's was returned to
January 1st.

The new year, however, is celebrated mostly in the old year - on New Year's Eve. Eve, of course, comes from evening, but it means the "evening before". We also have Christmas Eve, the evening before Christmas, and Halloween, the evening (shortened to "een") before All Hallows (or all holy) day. The annual celebration of the beginning of the new year at the end of the old year is actually quite appropriate. As we celebrate, we both think back on the year we've passed through, and we look forward to the coming year. January, the name of the first month of the year, comes from the Roman God Janus, the god of doorways and gates, and Janus had two faces, one looking in at what is already inside, and one looking out -- for what was coming.

Other months of the year are named after Roman gods or goddesses, but February is named after a religious festival of purification, Febrarius, that took place on the 15th of the second month of the year. March is the month dedicated to Mars, the god of war. The blood red planet, Mars, is named after him and we also get our word "martial"-- "of war" or "suitable for war". "Martial arts" is from this root, as well as "martial law", a temporary rule declared by the military in a time of crisis or war. April is the month of Venus, the goddess of love. Our English word is from the Greek name of the goddess: Aphrodite or Aphro, and the Etruscan name, Apru. May is from "Maia", the Roman goddess of spring. June is the month consecrated to "Juno", the goddess of the moon.

The first six months of the year are named after gods and goddesses, but the final four months of the year are simply, but erroneously, numbered. September (seven) is the ninth month, October (eight) is the tenth month, November (nine) is the eleventh, and the twelfth month is December. The word root "dec" is from the Greek "deka", meaning ten. We also have other units of measurement based on ten -- decalitre -- ten litres and decilitre --1/10 of a liter, and decametre -- ten metres and decimeter --1/10 metre. We also have the word "decimal" -- a system of measurement based on the number ten. The Latin form is "decadis", from which we get decade -- a period of ten years. All these ten-based measurement systems are thought to be from early, primitive cultures in which people counted on their ten fingers -- and ten toes!

Getting back to the months of the year, names of the last four months don't add up; we have twelve months in our calendar, not ten. In the old Roman calendar, there actually were ten months in total, but Julius Caesar (for his Julian Calendar) decided to add a month and name it after himself -- July. Then Augustus Caesar thought that this was such a good idea that he did the same! And so we have the newest month, August, and twelve months in total. Neither Julius nor Augustus seemed interested in recounting and renaming September, October, November, and December.

The days of the week are also named mainly after gods and goddesses, but their word roots come from the Latin into Anglo-Saxon and Old English and then into our modern language. Monday is the Moon's Day. Tuesday is the day of Tiw the Anglo-Saxon god of war. Wednesday is Wodin's day; Wodin was the most important Anglo-Saxon god, and he corresponds to Odin in Norse mythology. Thursday is the Day of Thor, the god of thunder. Friday is the day of the Goddess Frigg, the wife of Odin and the goddess of the sky. The seventh and last day of the week is Saturday, which goes back to Latin mythology; it's the day of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

Finally, we come to the first day of the week, Sunday -- the day of the Sun. What we call our "weekend", then, Saturday and Sunday, is not just the end of the old week, but also the beginning of the new one. Like the celebration of New Year's, and like Janus, the god of doorways, gates and portals, every week's end is also every week's beginning. We can look both back into the past that was, and forward into the future that will be.

Accordingly, in these early days of January, it is appropriate that I wish you, dear reader, a very Happy Last Year as well as a Happy New Year!

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