Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

January 2010

The New Year Has Two Faces

A certain copyrighted poet once named April the cruellest month, but I'd wager for most of us, it's January: the holidays are over, but the winter is just getting underway, and those annoying New Year's Resolutions probably only serve to remind us of the ones we failed to keep last year. If only we could just ditch the entire month, eh? Well, it may interest you to know that the month of January has not always existed; nor was it the first month of the year when it finally did show up.

Traditionally, January and February are said to have been added to the Roman calendar (the ancestor of the Gregorian calendar we use today) during the reign of King Numa, around 713 BCE. Before that, the Roman year was only ten months long. The name January comes from Latin Ianuarius, which ultimately derives from the proper name Ianus or Janus, the Roman god of doorways (yes, they had a god for doorways). Janus had two faces, one facing forwards and one facing backwards; he was an apt selection for the first month of the year, for he can simultaneously contemplate the year that has just passed and the year that has just begun.

But Janus has only been doorman of the New Year since about 450 BCE. Before that, the Roman calendar began with the month of March, whose Latin name was Martius. This month was named after Mars, the god of war, an important deity for the Romans (they owed their wealth and power to warfare).

Six of the months of the expanded Roman calendar year have names of special significance, but the remaining six were simply numbered: Quintilis (from quintus, meaning "fifth"); Sextilis (from sextus, meaning "sixth"); September (from septem, meaning "seven"); October (from octo, meaning "eight"); November (from novem, meaning "nine"); and December (from decem, meaning "ten"). Quintilis and Sextilis have been renamed, but September, October, November, and December are relatively unchanged, except that they are the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months, respectively, each having moved places when the months January and February were repositioned at the start of the year.

The name February comes from Februa, a purification ritual (februum means "purification") held on February 15 – which isn't the Ides of February, by the way: February's Ides are on the 13th. The root of April is Latin Aprilis. No one really knows what this word means, but one theory derives it from the verb aperire, to open, as this is the month when flowers "open".

There are two main theories of the origin of the names May and June. Their Latin names are Maius and Junius, and one etymology has the months named after the maiores (the "greater" or "older" people) and juniores (the "younger" people), respectively. The other theory, following the model of January and March, has them named after deities: Maia, the (originally Greek) goddess of fertility, and Juno, the wife of Jupiter.

Finally, the two months that have changed their names. Quintilis is the month in which Julius Caesar was born; small wonder, then, that this month's name was changed to Julius, the root of modern July. On this same model, Sextilis was renamed Augustus after Augustus Caesar, giving us modern-day August. (Augustus, though, was not born in August; rather, this month was chosen to commemorate him as it comes after his adopted father's month.)

And it's not only the names of the months that are descended from Latin; the word calendar itself comes from Latin kalendae or the "calends", the Roman name for the first day of the month. Just another thing the Romans did for us.

Robert Groves - Editor