Thursday, January 2, 2014

Word Odyssey: Two-Faced Janus and the Other Months

Posted By on Thu, Jan 2, 2014 at 9:00 AM

It’s time to feed your inner nerd.

It’s the new year, so it’s a good time to talk about time, and when eggheads start talking about time, they can get really worked up. St. Augustine asked: "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not." The Ancient Greek Sophists denied that time is real, saying that it is merely a concept or a measurement. And don’t even get me started on Einstein’s space-time continuum.

So I’m going to bring time down to earth and just talk about the months of the year, which is confusing all by itself, starting with the word month. It’s a Germanic word derived from moon, probably because some early ways of tracking time were based on the lunar cycle. That, by the way, is 29.5 days from new moon to new moon. That cycle doesn’t track with an even number of days. Nor does it track with seasons, which are important for hunters, gatherers, farmers, and snowbirds. That’s why we now base calendars on the sun. That’s problematic too, since we circle the sun every 365.25 days, but it’s more easily corrected with a leap year. Anyway, our solar calendar is divided into months, which comes from the moon cycle. Got that?

Months are confusing, too, when you look at September, October, November and December. These months are from the Latin numbers 7, 8, 9 and 10. But they are months 9 through 12 on our calendar. Back in the days of the old Roman (pre-Julian) calendar, when there were only 10 months, September through December were in fact months 7 through 10. But the Roman calendar had gotten seriously out of whack with solar year—the first month, January, fell in autumn—so Julius Caesar decreed a new calendar. When he did, he inserted two more months, which pushed September through December to months 9 through 12.

Let’s go to the month that begins the year. January is named after the Janus, the Roman god of transitions. He’s usually depicted as two-faced, looking both backward and forward. That’s why the first month of the year bears his name: out with the old, in with the new. February is named after a Roman purification ritual and festival. Februus, the god of the dead, was actually invented later based on this festival. March, of course, comes from Mars, the Roman god of war. In the Roman climate, March is springtime, and that meant it was time to call up the legions and conquer somebody.

April is a tricky one. The month of April was sacred to the Roman goddess Venus, who is modeled after Greek goddess Aphrodite. So it’s possible that April is a kind of riff on Aphrodite. Or it might come from a Latin word for opening, because it’s the time of year when trees and flowers bloom. No one’s quite sure. The Anglo-Saxons called the same time of year “oster monath”, possibly derived from the goddess of dawn, which is where we get the word Easter. That lusty month of May is aptly named after Maia, a Greek fertility goddess. The Romans held the celebration for their own fertility goddess, Bona Dea, in the month of May.

Juno was Jupiter’s wife, and worshipped as the goddess of marriage and the household. Back then it was considered good luck to be married in June, and we still talk about lucky June brides today. July used to be Quintilus, the fifth month. But the Roman Emperor Augustus renamed it in honor of Julius Caesar, who was born in that month. Augustus didn’t have what you would call a small ego, so he thought he deserved a month named after himself, especially after conquering Marc Antony, Cleopatra and Egypt. So he renamed (or had the Senate rename) the month Sextus to August. Oddly, though, he didn’t pick his birth month to bear his name. Instead he picked the birth month of Cleopatra, Egypt’s last ruler. (This was a considerable improvement on the Anglo-Saxon name for the month, which was Weodmonad—weed month). Other Roman emperors, including Nero, tried instituting months bearing their names, but were thankfully unsuccessful.

Well, I’m out of time, whatever that is. See you next week (hint).

Word Odyssey is a weekly column on words, their origins and the stories that go with them. It appears each Thursday on The Range.

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