September, and the Names of the Months

It’s September, and that always makes me think of the names of the months. September of course, is the ninth month of the year, but the name might make you think it’s the seventh, if you know your Latin.

You see, the root of the name September is septem, the Latin word for the number seven. And the reason for this is that the old Roman calendar was believed to have ten months, beginning with March (Martius), therefore making September the seventh month of the year. You can see this pattern in the following three months, which are all derived from the Latin for the numbers eight (octo), nine (novem), and ten (decem).

Note I said that some believe the oldest Roman calendar had ten months, because it’s quite debated among historians. The main argument for a ten-month calendar is the naming of the months: why else would the last month of the year be named after the number ten?

Whatever the reason behind the names, the Roman calendar was replaced by the Julian calendar in 45BC. Devised by Julius Caesar, it featured twelve months, and forms the basis for our modern calendar. Our modern calendar is known as the Gregorian calendar. Named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in 1582, it basically tweaked the Julian calendar by 0.002%, to account for previous drifts in the calendar due to the solstices and equinoxes. The names of the month were retained from the Julian calendar, in slightly anglicised form.

Ianuarius – January

Februarius – February

Martius – Mars

Aprilis – April

Maius – May

Iunius – June

Quintilis – Iulius (renamed later in honour of Julius Caesar) – July

Sextilis – Augustus (similarly renamed for Caesar Augustus) – August

And the last four haven’t changed at all. But if the etymology of these months is pretty straightforward (and Quintilus and Sextilis meant fifth and sixth month respectively), what about the first four?

Ianuarius is generally thought to be named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transition. He was depicted as having two heads, facing in opposite directions, so it makes sense to name January, looking back to the old year and forward to  the new one, after him.

Februarius was named for the ancient festival of purification known as Februa, which took place on 15 February. St. Valentine’s Day may have been placed on 14 February to supercede Februa and later Roman celebrations on the 15th such as Lupercalia.

Martius was named after Mars, the god of war and guardian of agriculture, as this was the beginning of the farming and war seasons, hence also a logical place for the Romans to start the year.

Aprilis may be derived from the Latin verb aperire (to open) as this is the time plants are starting to bloom. Some also suggest that, because this was the month when tributes were paid to the goddess of love Venus, it derives from her Greek name Aphrodite.

Maius is thought to come from the Greek name (Maia) for the Roman goddess of fertility Bona Dea. The Roman poet Ovid, however, suggested it was named in honour of elders (maiores), and that June was named for the young (iunoires).

Iunius though, is probably named after Juno, chief goddess and wife of supreme Roman deity. There doesn’t seem to be a particular reason to name it after her, but I suppose they had to name something after her, and June is a nice month to be named after.

So that’s how we got the names of the months of the year, and if anyone ever asks you what the Romans have ever done for us, you’ve got something to add to the list.

 

Image: http://romeonrome.com/2015/09/september-in-rome-2015/

12 thoughts on “September, and the Names of the Months

  1. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan named their daughter (born a few days ago) August. I asked my sister whether they would have called her September if she’d been born a few days later. April, May and June have feminine flavours (as you’ve explained). July and August were both named after men. Some men are still named Julius and Augustus, but the female names Julia and Julie, and Augusta and August are comparatively more popular. I was going to write ‘I guess no-one has ever been named January, February, March, September, October, November or December’ but then I remembered the actress January Jones.
    Compare Marcus, Marc, Mark, Marcia, and Septimus, Octavius/Octavia, (?) and Decimus.

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    • August does feel quite masculine without the A at the end, maybe just because the month makes me think of Caesar Augustus. Octavia still survives, at least in America. I can think of the writer Octavia Butler and the actress Octavia Spencer. Apart from that names based on these last four months of the year haven’t really survived. Maybe they seem too pedestrian, being based on numbers.

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      • I vaguely remember reading that the names Tertius, Quartus etc up to at least Decimus, were given to the third, fourth etc son of the family, but that can’t be right. One Latin textbook featured a boy named Qunitus, who was the only boy in his family.

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  2. Awesome post…. I have recently understood that Rio de Janeiro the City means River of January, by the way. Janus´ river maybe!?… Your post reminded me of that…. Good to learn all this, Niall. ((and thank you for the message on Twitter as to my virtual misadventures. September didn´t start too well for me. Bummer!…. xx 😉

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