Calendar Conundrum


By Clover Carroll

A Janus sculpture in Reggio Emilia, Italy
A Janus sculpture in Reggio Emilia, Italy

Now that school, church, and the sports season and theater/concert season are upon us, this is the month we often sit down to fill out our calendars so we are sure to reserve time for book groups, practices, holiday events, and spring break trips.

Each time I do this, I wonder anew why the names of the ninth through twelfth months of our calendar year are derived from the Latin words for seven through ten! We must have learned this in school somewhere along the line, but in my case the explanation has long been forgotten.

So I decided to investigate. Humdrum and every day as our calendar is, its history is actually quite fascinating. The word month itself is derived from moon, because in the original Roman lunar calendar, one month roughly corresponded to the length of time required for the moon to revolve once around the Earth. When this was later changed to a solar calendar, this word was retained for convenience even though our months no longer follow the lunar cycle.

The dating system we still use today evolved in Rome prior to the Christian era. According to legend, Romulus, the co-founder of Rome, instituted the calendar in about 738 bc. Based on the cycles of the moon, the ancient Roman calendar consisted of 10 months, bearing the names Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Juniius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December, with the last six names corresponding to the Latin words for the numbers 5 through 10. The second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, added two months to create the 12-month year in about 700 BC. Rife with inaccuracies and often manipulated for political purposes, the calendar was reformed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC and dubbed the Julian calendar with the fifth month renamed July in his honor. Advised by the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes, Caesar decided to scrap the lunar calendar altogether and adopt the Egyptian solar calendar of 365 days, which kept it in step with the seasons. Pope Gregory XIII modified it again in 1582, establishing the Gregorian calendar, which is still in use today in the West. The Eastern Orthodox Church, however, still follows the Julian calendar.

What our research does not explain is why some of the months are named after Roman gods or significant Latin words, while others are simply numbered. Historical records do show that the names of two of the numbered months (July and August) were later changed to honor Roman emperors. When two additional months were tacked on to the beginning of the year, so that what used to be the first month (March) became the third, no one bothered to change the numbered month names to reflect this shift. This explains why the last four months of our year carry names that are two counts off from their actual place in the order of the year!

The names with more significance than just a number are the most interesting. January, the month of new beginnings, is named after the god Janus, the two-faced god of gates, who looks simultaneously back at the past and forward to the future. This is appropriate for the month when one year ends and a new one begins.

February is derived from the Latin word februare, to cleanse or purify. On the 15th of this month Romans traditionally held purification festivals to celebrate the forgiveness of sins.

March, the first month of the Roman year, was named after Mars, the god of war—perhaps because war was so important to Roman culture—time to start again! This word origin also explains what soldiers frequently do.

April is believed to derive from the word aperire, meaning “to open,” perhaps a reference to the earth’s opening as plants sprout, and buds open and bloom. Some also believe this month is named for Aphrodite, goddess of love, in honor of animal mating time.

May is usually credited to Maia, Roman goddess of spring and mother of Mercury.

Juno, wife of Jupiter, was the patron goddess of the Roman Empire and goddess of marriage, protector of women. However, another theory holds that May was the month dedicated to old men (maiores) and June to young men (iuniores). Of course, we still use these months to honor certain roles, with Mother’s Day in May and Father’s Day in June.

The month in which Julius Caesar was born was changed from Quintilis (fifth month) to July in his honor in 44 BC. Caesar was assassinated that same year in the midst of a civil war by a large group of conspirators, an event immortalized by Shakespeare (“beware the Ides [fifteenth day] of March!”). August was later renamed to honor the first Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. This was changed from the original, Sextilis, or sixth month.

We’ve come down to our original conundrum. September is from the Latin word septem, meaning seventh month; October from octo, meaning eighth month, November from novem, meaning ninth month, and December from decem, meaning tenth month. But these number references only made sense when March was counted as the first month, as in the ancient Roman calendar.

As you can see, history is as unpredictable as the humans who create it. What began as a logical and consistent naming system was at some point taken over by religion and celebrity. But I wish they hadn’t stopped there. To clear up this confusion, maybe we should rename these last four months Autumntide, Soultide, Harvestide, and Startide (since almost all winter festivals celebrate light). But this would require a constitutional amendment! So I guess we’re stuck with the old familiars.


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