This Is Where the Names of the Months Come From
If novem means "nine," why is November the eleventh month?
The names for the 12 months of the year are some of the first words you learn. Soon enough, weird terms like “October” and “February” become as familiar as a primary color or a favorite food. A month’s name is never really given any thought; it means so much only insofar that it dictates when you have to do something or be somewhere.
But such thinking leaves out a deep trove of screen-worthy storytelling. The names of the month involve rich histories of kings, emperors, and no shortage of Greek and Roman gods. (They also tend to have totally nonsensical numbering systems. For instance, novem means nine in Latin, yet November is the eleventh month. What’s up with that?) Yes, each month has an odd story worth knowing about. Here are all twelve of them.
The month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways. Janus is represented with two heads that are back to back, which signifies that he is looking back at the past for perspective, as well as forward to the future for hope. His duality perfectly coincides the end of one year and the start of the next.
January is marked with renewal and fresh beginnings, which is why it’s the month of resolutions, to make positive changes for the year ahead. Maybe that’s why it’s commonly referred to as “Divorce Month,” since more people kick off divorce proceedings in January than any other month.
The name February is derived from the Roman period of Februa, which was a festival of purification. Also called the festival of Lupercalia, it was named after the Roman God Februus, who represented purification. In fact, William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar begins during Lupercalia. Mark Antony is instructed by Caesar to strike his wife Calpurnia, in the hope that she’ll be able to conceive. This festival took place on the 15th day of the month and involved some usual cleansing rituals to improve health and fertility.
February is the only month to have 28 days—except during the Leap Year, when it has 29. According to an Irish tradition, a woman can ask a man to marry her on this day and have better luck of him saying yes.
March, the third month of our calendar, was formerly the first month of the year in the Roman Calendar. It’s named after Mars, the Roman god of war, and also identified with the Greek god Ares. This month was considered the time to resume war, once the winter thawed out. As the Romans viewed war and fighting as a means to gaining lasting peace, this idea can provide an alternative perspective to the quote, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.”
An interesting fact about March is that vasectomies spike by 30 percent during March Madness, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. As vasectomy patients need to ice the area for a full day, doing so while sitting on the couch and watching the games all day makes perfect sense.
April is the month of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. (In the Roman pantheon, she’s known as Venus.) The word April comes from the Latin word apeire, which means to open, likely in connection with flower buds opening to bloom in the spring.
April is also marked by April Fools’ Day, which takes place on the first day of the month, and is celebrated by playing pranks on others. It is believed that the tradition began in the 1500s after the shift from the Julian calendar (where new year starts around the March equinox) to the Gregorian calendar (where the new year starts on January 1). Those who didn’t know about the calendar switch, and stuck to the old Julian system, were roundly mocked—and April Fool’s stuck through the years.
May is derived from the French word Mai. It is named after Maia, the goddess of spring and growth. Maia is also the daughter of Faunus, one of the oldest Roman deities and the wife of Vulcan. Also, in Greek mythology, Maia is known as the mother of Hermes. The Greeks and Romans saw Maia as a nurturer filled with warmth and plenty—kind of like May.
An interesting fact about May is in Japan, there is a condition known as May Sickness referred to as Gogatsu-byou. As the Japanese school year begins in April, and many changes take place at that time of the year, Gogatsu-byou is a type of depression that affects new students and employees after a few weeks of adjusting to a suddenly busier life.
June is named after Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage, and also the de facto deity-counselor of the Roman state. (Hera is her Greek equivalent.) In Roman mythology, Juno watched over pregnant woman and children and insured safe births, which is why getting married in June is considered good luck. When looking at its goddess name origin, June is not only an ideal time for weddings, but it’s also a good month for renewing vows and conceiving children.
July was initially known as Quintilis, or “the fifth month,” which it was on the Julian calendar. July was named in honor of Julius Caesar after his death in 44 B.C.E., as he was born during this month. In fact, July is the first month of the calendar which is named after a real person.
For those who live in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the month known for its hot summer days, also known as “dog days.” July is the month to head to the beach, pool, and playground, and take part in many other outdoor activities. (In the States, people revel in Independence Day celebrations, too.) On the other hand, in the Southern Hemisphere, July is a month for reflection and meditation as it falls in the middle of the cold, dark winter.
The month of August was originally called Sextilis, from the Latin word sextus, meaning six. Its name was changed in honor of the Roman emperor Augustus, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew. Augustus was an emperor who brought peace to a very conflicted area, and inspired growth, reform, and a stronger infrastructure within its cities.
Keeping this in mind, August is an excellent month for reorganization, improvements, and development within ourselves and our own communities. It became the eighth month in 700 B.C.E. when January and February were moved to the beginning of the year on the Gregorian system.
Just like Quinitlis and Sextilis, September comes from the Latin term septem, meaning seven. September was originally the seventh month in the ancient Roman calendar—which was 10 months long—until 153 B.C.E. when it became the ninth month of the year. For the Romans, September was known for the celebration called Ludi Romani, which lasted several weeks and featured chariot races, gladiatorial contests, and lots of feasts. In the spiritual sense, September can be thought of as the month that we celebrate our own personal victories and accomplishments.
October is derived from the word octo, which means eight, as it was the eighth month of the Roman calendar, and later became the tenth month with the Gregorian calendar. October is marked by many festivals taking place around the world, including Oktoberfest in Germany and the Aloha Festival in Hawaii, which is also known as the Mardi Gras of the Pacific.
Oh, it’s also National Cookie Month, National Pizza Month, National Popcorn Month, National Dessert Month, National Pretzel Month, National Seafood Month, National Sausage Month, and National Pasta Month. Yum.
November is derived from the Latin word novem, which means nine. Just like the others, its name stuck, even after January and February were added to the calendar, making November the eleventh month. In the United States, November is associated with the much-anticipated Thanksgiving holiday, which involves lots of eating, a four-day weekend, and Black Friday, the start of the Christmas holiday season and the busiest shopping day of the year.
December comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten. It was the tenth month of the Julian calendar, and now the twelfth month of the Gregorian one. The Latin name is derived from Decima, the middle Goddess of the Three Fates, and the one who personifies the present.
In the Northern Hemisphere, December is not only the start of winter but is also known for having the shortest day of the year with the least amount of daylight hours on December 21. And for more word backstories, check out The Fascinating Origins of These 30 Common Words.
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