Here’s How the Months of the Year Got Their Names
Here’s a hint: Gods, kings, and numbers were involved.
Fun fact: January has not always been first on our calendars. For ancient Romans, the year began in March and finished 10 months later in December, according to Wonderopolis.org, an education site by the National Center for Families Learning. The months of January and February, meanwhile, did not have official titles for centuries. When King Pompilius revamped the Roman calendar around 690 B.C., he named January after Janus, the Roman god of doors and beginnings. Seems appropriate for the first month of the new year. Turns out, being first could also explain why January is the most popular month for divorce.
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Ancient Romans always celebrated the year’s end with a festival called “Februa.” When King Pompilius named the 12th month of the Roman year, he chose February after that period of celebration. In 1582, Pope Gregory tweaked the calendar again, changing the start of the year to January 1 for most western countries. England and the American colonies, for their part, continued to celebrate the new year in February until 1752. Funny enough, the Romans also played a role in the bizarre reason February only has 28 days.
If you were born before 690 B.C., you would have considered March—not January—the first month of the calendar year. Tradition called for Romans to put down their swords in a ceasefire during January and February (the two months between the old and new years), which meant that wars would have resumed on March 1. As a result, many experts believe that the Romans named March after Mars, the Roman god of war, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) writes.
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Believe it or not, the source of April’s name has stumped historians for centuries. Because it was the second month on the ancient Roman calendar, some claim its title comes from the Latin word for “second.” Others believe the name is linked to the term “aperire,” which means “to open” in Latin—named for the budding greenery in spring. Still, others speculate that April was named after the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite. The true origins are anyone’s guess.
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The month of May was named in honour of the Greek goddess Maia, guardian of nature and growing plants. Never heard of her? You’re not alone. Maia may have been one of the lesser-known deities in Greek mythology, but she punched above her weight. According to Greek mythology, Maia was the daughter of Atlas, the titan who carried the world on his shoulders, and mother of Hermes, the messenger for the gods. She was also known as the goddess of the earth, so it’s no surprise that this springtime month bears her name.
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June kicks off our modern-day wedding season, and its namesake might explain why. The Romans named June after Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage. Like her Greek counterpart Hera, Juno was married to the chief Roman god Jupiter and considered the queen of the gods. June was also dubbed the midsummer month, making it an ideal time to get married back in the day, per the OED.
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Because the ancient Roman calendar started with March, the month of July would have been the fifth month of the year. That said, it’s only logical that the month was once called “Quintilis,” which translates to “fifth” in Latin. But in 44 B.C., July was renamed in honour of the Julius Caesar, whose birthday fell in this month.
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The source of August’s name is similar to that of July’s. August had been previously known as “Sextillia”—Latin for “sixth”—but was later named after Augustus Caesar when he became emperor of Rome. The great-nephew of Julius Caesar, Augustus went by the name of Octavian as a child. He only took the title Augustus, meaning “consecrated or venerable” in Latin, after claiming the Roman throne.
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As the seventh month in the ancient Roman calendar, September has origins that will sound familiar to attentive readers: The root “septem” means “seven” in Latin. But like July and August, the numbering of the months is now slightly skewed; in today’s calendar, September is the ninth month of the year.
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From octagon to octopus, the Latin root “octo” is common in our everyday vocab. It means—you guessed it—”eight.” Back in the day, the Romans considered October to be the eighth month of the year and named it as such. Though the calendar was reordered centuries ago, the original names of the months have still managed to stick around.
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Like the months of September and October, the story behind November’s name is surprisingly simple. The Romans dubbed the ninth month of the calendar year with the root “novem,” which is the term for “nine” in Latin.
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At the very least, the modern-day and ancient Roman calendars share one thing in common: They both end the year with the month of December. But the Roman pattern of naming months by numerical order still applies. It won’t take a rocket scientist to guess, then, that December got its title from the Latin word “decem,” or “10.” Months don’t have the only names with fascinating origins.