Months of the Year - Origin of their Names

INTRODUCTION

They are among the most commonly used words in the English language. They are the yardsticks by which we define the turning of the Earth on its axis, and the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. They are the words we use to date the events of history, and our lives. They are the seven days of the week, and the twelve months of the year. But why seven days? And twelve months? And where do the very names themselves come from?

In two pages I will try to answer some of these questions.

1) In the first page I wrote about the origins of the seven days of the week.

2) In this page I will write about the origins of the twelve months of the year.


THE ENGLISH NAMES OF THE MONTHS

1 ) JANUARY - The Month of Janus, the Roman God of the gateway

2 ) FEBRUARY - The Month of Februa, the Roman Festival of Purification

3 ) MARCH - The Month of Mars, the Roman God of War

4 ) APRIL - The Month of Aprilis, which means 'opening' (of leaves and buds)

5 ) MAY - The Month of Maia, Greco-Roman Goddess of Spring and Fertility

6 ) JUNE - The Month of Juno, the principal Roman goddess

7 ) JULY - Named in honour of Roman dictator, Julius Caesar

8 ) AUGUST - Named in honour of Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar

9 ) SEPTEMBER - Named simply as 'the 7th month of the year'

10) OCTOBER - Named simply as 'the 8th month of the year'

11) NOVEMBER - Named simply as 'the 9th month of the year'

12) DECEMBER - Named simply as 'the 10th month of the year'


WHY ARE THERE TWELVE MONTHS IN A YEAR?

The reason for calendars was to record long periods of time, and to predict important events such as the flooding of the Nile in Egypt, and the only way in which ancient civilisations could do this was through the natural astronomical cycles. Three such cycles were known to the ancients - the day (rotation of the Earth), the year (revolution of the Earth around the Sun), and - significantly for the purposes of this discussion - the lunar cycle (revolution of the Moon around the Earth).

Unfortunately, none of these natural cycles divide up evenly; a year doesn't divide accurately into an equal number of lunar cycles (or months), and each lunar cycle or month could not divide into an equal number of days. It was impossible for ancient civilisations to marry up these different concepts in a precisely accurate way, and every system employed resulted in enormously convoluted and contrived calendars, all of which introduced errors of some degree, even though the ancients had already worked out the length of the Solar year with impressive accuracy.

One aspect of the calendar did become established at a fairly early stage - the number of months in a year. Lunar cycles are about 29.53 days long, and there are about 365.24 days in the year. Simple division allowed the ancients to partition the year into 12 segments. (Although very briefly the Romans did experiment with a curious 10 month year - see below). What remained was to allocate names to these months, and to allocate the number of days to each month (as 365 could not be divided into 12 months of equal days).

The naming of the months will be covered in the following sections. The allocation of the number of days that each month would possess, proved extraordinarily difficult to standardise, and the systems used were many and varied. Detailed description is beyond the scope of this page, but the following links may help anyone who is interested:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_calendar

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/calendar/romancalendar.html


HOW THE MODERN CALENDAR CAME INTO BEING

The next four sections are concerned solely with the calendar of ancient Rome, as this is the calendar which has come down through the centuries to be adopted by the western world and specifically the English-speaking world. During this period there was much tinkering with the calendar to try to make it as accurate and as useful as possible, but three major changes occurred, and these will be illustrated in the three tables below.


TABLE 1 - THE ROMAN CALENDAR ABOUT 750 BC

ROMAN MONTH 
ENGLISH EQUIVELANT
NO OF DAYS
MARTIUS 
MARCH 
31
APRILIS 
APRIL 
30
MAIUS 
MAY 
31
IUNIUS
JUNE
30
QUINTILIS
JULY
31
SEXTILIS
AUGUST
30
SEPTEMBER
SEPTEMBER
30
OCTOBER
OCTOBER
31
NOVEMBER
NOVEMBER
30
DECEMBER
DECEMBER
30
UN-NAMED
JANUARY / FEBRUARY
61

THE TEN MONTH ROMAN CALENDAR

The original Roman calendar at the time of the foundation of Rome c750 BC - allegedly created by Romulus - actually had, somewhat bizarrely, only 10 named months, despite the apparent logic of a 12 month year. Certain points are immediately apparent. (SEE TABLE 1)

1) The first month of the year was March.

2) Most of the months had names which surprisingly really haven't changed very much over the centuries, and are still quite recognisable in the Roman form. Indeed some - quite remarkably - have not changed at all. The principal exceptions to this familiarity are Quintilis and Sextilis - quite different to their modern English counterparts.

3) It may be that the period at the end of the year (c 61 days) was simply un-named and undivided, or it may be that two un-named months existed. The reason for the strange anonymity of this period is probably because it was wintertime. The main purpose of a calendar at this time would have been to chart the changes of the agricultural seasons and the major festivals of Rome; wintertime was a period of effective stagnation in farming, war, and religion, so there was no need for a name.


TABLE 2 - THE ROMAN CALENDAR c713-45 BC

ROMAN MONTH 
ENGLISH EQUIVELANT
NO OF DAYS
IANUARIUS 
JANUARY 
29
FEBRUARIUS 
FEBRUARY 
23/24 or 28/29
INTERCALARIS 
A 'LEAP MONTH' 
27 or 0
MARTIUS
MARCH
31
APRILIS
APRIL
29
MAIUS
MAY
31
IUNIUS
JUNE
29
QUINTILIS
JULY
31
SEXTILIS
AUGUST
29
SEPTEMBER
SEPTEMBER
29
OCTOBER
OCTOBER
31
NOVEMBER
NOVEMBER
29
DECEMBER
DECEMBER
29

THE TWELVE MONTH ROMAN CALENDAR (AND THE PERIOD OF INTERCALARIS)

However, by the year 713 BC the legendary King Numa Pompilius - supposed successor to Romulus - reformed the calendar by altering the numbers of days in each month, and installing two new months - Ianuarius and Februarius - into the barren period of wintertime at the end of the year. (In Latin the letter 'J' only came into being fairly recently. 'J' can be directly translated from 'I' in names like January, June and July). All of the months were allocated between 28 and 31 days, and this enabled the 12 months to equal 355 days - a fairly precise figure matching 12 Lunar cycles (though not, of course, the Solar year). It was decided eventually that each of the months (with the exception of February) would have either 29 or 31 days, because Roman superstitions favoured odd numbers.

At some stage (possibly King Numa c700 BC, though some authorities date the change to 450 BC) It was decided to move the two new months Ianuarius and Februarius to the beginning of the year.

One further change occurred. The main motivation for a calendar was to match the dates to the seasons so that reliable dates for agricultural practice could be achieved. The descrepancy between the 12 month Lunar year (c355 days) and the Solar year (c365 days) meant that an additional 'month' or 'Intercalaris' was sometimes introduced at the end of a shortened February of 23 or 24 days. This was effectively a 'leap month' introduced to realign the year with the progress of seasonal changes, and to make the average length of the year 365 days, but it did mean that some years were only 355 days long, and other years were 377 or 378 days long. This was the calendar, with minor adjustments, which would remain in place for more than 400 years.(SEE TABLE 2)


TABLE 3 - THE JULIAN CALENDAR AFTER 8 BC

ROMAN MONTH 
ENGLISH EQUIVELANT 
NO OF DAYS
IANUARIUS 
JANUARY 
31 
FEBRUARIUS 
FEBRUARY 
28/29
MARTIUS 
MARCH 
31 
APRILIS
APRIL
30
MAIUS
MAY
31
IUNIUS
JUNE
30
IULIUS
JULY
31
AUGUSTUS
AUGUST
31
SEPTEMBER
SEPTEMBER
30
OCTOBER
OCTOBER
31
NOVEMBER
NOVEMBER
30
DECEMBER
DECEMBER
31

THE JULIAN CALENDAR

In 46 BC, Julius Caesar instigated far reaching reforms of the old calendar. Corruption was rife as a politician's term of office corresponded to a Solar year, and an Intercalaris could greatly extend the term of office if one was introduced. Employment of the Intercalaris had no clear pattern, so the system was open to abuse according to the political whims of the preciding official - the Pontifex. The respected astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria was commissioned to devise a new calendar, the Julian Calendar. He set all months at 30 or 31 days apart from February which had 28 days. Two months - Quintilis immediately, and Sextilis a few decades later - had name changes, which will be related in the next section. Most significantly Intercalaris was abolished, and the leap year that we know today was established, with an extra 29th day every 4th year in February. (SEE TABLE 3) The result was a calendar which is essentially the calendar we know today with similar month names and same number of days per month. That the calendar format introduced 2000 years ago is still considered the best available, with just a few minor changes in the 16th century (described below) is indeed a tribute to the remarkable genius of Sosigenes.


THE GREGORIAN CALENDAR

Some refinements to the Julian Calendar were introduced under Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, as small errors were beginning to throw up seasonal variations in the year. This is because the true year is actually about 11 minutes shorter than the 365.25 days calculated by the Romans, leading to a gain of 3 days every 400 years. However essentially the calendar remained the same (and indeed Gregorian changes were only introduced in some countries such as Russia and China in the last 100 years) The Gregorian amendment involved the one time dropping of some days and some occasional leap year changes.


THE EMPEROR MONTHS OF JULY AND AUGUST ..... AND ALSO CLAUDIUS AND NERONIUS

By 46BC, the Roman calendar had fallen into some disrepute. Bad calculations and corruption had caused the months and the seasons of the year to fluctuate wildly; at one time January began to fall in the autumn. Julius Caesar, on his succession to power as Roman dictator, reformed the calendar, and a new more accurate calendar came into effect on 1st January 45 BC. To honour Julius Caesar for this work, the Senate agreed to change the name of one of the months to his name. Thus Quintilis - the month of his birthday - came to an end, and Iulius or Julius was inaugurated.

Following Julius Caesar's assassination, and a period of turmoil in Rome, Caesar's grandnephew Octavian eventually became the first official emperor of Rome in 27 BC, assuming the name of Augustus Caesar. It was decided a month should be named in his honour too. The question was - which month? Several notable events had occurred in the month of Sextillis, including the the end of the tumultuous civil war, the subducation of Egypt, and the triumphant return to Rome of Augustus. Therefore it was decided that Sextillis was the month which would cease to exist; it would be re-named Augustus. This happened in 8 BC.

That may not have been the end of Imperial tampering with the calendar. Later on the month of May was renamed for the Emperor Claudius, and April was renamed Neronius, after Emperor Nero. Neither of these names caught on (perhaps wisely in the case of Nero, considered one of the great despots of history) so April and May both survived. The infamous Commodus (of Gladiator fame) actually tried to go one better and rename all twelve months after his own twelve adopted names! He didn't succeed. Other months were also occasionally re-named. September in particular variously became Germanicus, Antoninus and Tacitus, but it was the names which were standardised by Julius and Augustus Caesar which all survived long term.


THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ENGLISH NAMES OF THE MONTHS

Old English names for the months reflected climatic and agricultural significance. For example, March was named for its strong winds, September was designated the harvest month, and October was named as the month when grapes should be gathered for wine making. However, Roman influence and the introduction of Roman based Christianity ended this, and the Roman names of the months have come down to us pretty much unaltered.

  • JANUARY - January was originally Ianuarius or Januarius .- composed of two words 'Janus' (the Roman God) and 'arius' or 'ary' (pertaining to). Janus was the Roman God of the gateway, and of beginnings, and was usually depicted with two faces looking in two directions. Initially at the end of the year, when this month was moved to become the first month of the year, the choice of Janus as the dedicated God would have seemed quite natural with his two faces looking back to the old year, and forward to the new.
  • FEBRUARY - February was originally Februarius, the last month of the year. February refers to Februa, the Festival of Purification and Sacrifice, which used to occur on the 15th day on this month.
  • MARCH - Mars was named after the God of War and was originally called Martius. March was considered the month when soldiers would have to return to work (war) after the bleak winter months when war would ideally be temporarily suspended. This was therefore considered the first month of the year for soldiers, and was for a long time the first month of the calendar year.
  • APRIL - April may derive from translations of Aphrodite the Greek Goddess of this month, but more likely comes from the Latin Aprilis. Aprilis meant 'opening' and referred to the opening of leaves and flowers in springtime.
  • MAY - The month of May is also heavily influenced by the season of the year. Maia was the Goddess of spring, or Fertility and Growth.
  • JUNE - Iuno or Juno, the wife of Jupiter, was the principle goddess of the Rome.
  • JULY - (See above for a detailed description of this month). Formerly Quintilis, (or 'fifth' counting from March) it was re-named as Iulius or Julius for Julius Caesar in 45 BC.
  • AUGUST - (See above for a detailed description of this month). Formerly Sextillis (or 'sixth' counting from March, it was re-named as Augustus for Augustus Caesar in 8 BC.
  • SEPTEMBER - Rather boringly all the remaining months still have identical names to the original months, and all are derived by straightforward numbering from the original first month of March. (Did the Romans just lose interest in naming months?) Thus September is simply derived from the Latin word 'Septem', meaning seven, because this was the seventh month of the pre-Julian calendar.
  • OCTOBER - Simply derived from the Latin word 'Octo', meaning eight, because this was the eighth month of the pre-Julian calendar.
  • NOVEMBER -Simply derived from the Latin word 'Novem', meaning nine, because this was the ninth month of the pre-Julian calendar.
  • DECEMBER - Simply derived from the Latin word 'Decem', meaning ten, because this was the tenth month of the pre-Julian calendar.


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PLEASE ADD COMMENTS IF YOU WILL. THANKS, ALUN 4 comments

Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK Author

My thanks Thief12. This was an interesting page for me to write because much of the information I researched was new to me, and it was fascinating to uncover how our calendar has developed into its current form. Hope you enjoy the 'Days of the Week!'. Alun.


Thief12 profile image

Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

Really interesting. Great hub, very informative and neatly explained. I'm heading now to the Days of the Week one, hehehe.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Derdriu - thanks (especially) for commenting on this article! This was one the earlier pages I wrote on HubPages, but it was the only one left which had never received a comment. So thanks for clearing that!

It must have been a nightmare for the ancients to figure out how best to create a calendar - they knew with remarkable accuracy for the age just how many days in the year there were, and they were only out in their calculations by a matter of minutes. But nothing divided up nice and evenly. I really think that Sosigenes, who devised the Julian calendar, must be regarded an unsung genius, because apart from some little tampering with the leap years and a correction of a few days, his calendar is essentially identical to the one we use today.

Remarkable in a different way is the fact that in 2000 years the names of most of the months have changed so little. You could go back in time and write 'December' on a Roman tablet, and they'd know what you were talking about.

In the foreseeable future, no changes will be necessary to the calendar other than those which are already planned. (Between 2096 and 2104 the leap year will be dropped to align the seasons more accurately again). Apparently the Julian calendar was out of sync by 11 minutes, and the current calendar is out of sync by just 27 seconds - hence the occasional dropping of a leap year.

Once again thanks so much for your visit Derdriu and for your thoughtful comments.


Derdriu 5 years ago

Alun/Greensleeves Hubs: What a user-friendly way to show the evolution of the number of months in a year as well as each month's changing names and total days! Your article highlights the human dilemma of having a logical natural reason (the solar year) for a human invention (the calendar), but not having an eternally satisfactory solution to accounting for and dividing that time. Do you think that revisions will be necessary in the future or is this a keeper for Westerners?

Thank you, voted up, etc.,

Derdriu

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