The Secret Language Of Calendar Months
Ever wonder where February came from? And by the way, that’s not an existential question about how time, ever rapid, will inevitably pass you by. If you’ve ever pondered month meanings (as in, say, the etymology of April), then this article is for you.
Long story short, the Gregorian calendar that we’re familiar with in the West is largely a holdover from ancient Roman society. As such, the following month meanings are generally a big mish-mash of homages to Roman deities, emperors and numbering systems.
Did you know that January wasn’t always the first month of the year? The original Roman calendar only had 10 months, which began with Martius (or March). Januarius and Februarius were later added by Numa Pompilius, the legendary second king of Rome.
Januarius was named after Janus, the Roman god of doors, beginnings and endings. He is usually pictured as a two-faced man looking backward and forward at the same time, which seems appropriate for the turning of a new year. And yes, Romans had their own way of making New Year’s Resolutions too — except theirs involved making promises to Janus.
Februarius was a big time for spring cleaning in ancient Rome, but not in just a “deep-cleaning your kitchen” kind of way. The word februum means purification, and the instruments used for carrying out these rituals, such as spelt and salt, were called februa. The Feast of Lupercalia, which took place on February 15, was actually thought to be the ancient precursor to Valentine’s Day. Spoiler alert: it involved animal sacrifices and men whipping women with goat hides as a form of ritual purification and fertilization.
The month of March is named after Mars, the Roman god of war (and is also when the zodiacal month of Aries begins in Western astrology, which is a Mars-ruled sign). But that’s not the only reason: ancient Romans had several festivals dedicated to Mars that took place during his month, which was a way of gaining his favor at the outset of their agricultural and military season.
April, or Aprilis, has somewhat murkier origins. One theory posits that April is named after the Greek goddess Aphrodite (the counterpart to the Roman goddess Venus). This would also make some amount of sense from an astrological perspective, as the month of Taurus begins in April (Taurus being a Venus-ruled sign). Indeed, the Romans celebrated the Feast of Venus, or the Veneralia, on April 1.
Some also say that Aprilis comes from the Latin verb aperio, which means “I open.” The poet Ovid wrote that “April was named from the open season, because spring opens all things.”
May, or Maius, was also named after a deity — the goddess Maia. In Greek mythology, Maia was associated with the earth, motherhood, growth and nourishment, which kind of makes sense from a springtime perspective. Maia was also the mother of Hermes, or Mercury for the Romans. The month of Gemini, which is a Mercury-ruled sign, begins in May.
Another theory is that Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, named May and June after the Roman male citizen body, aka the maiores (elders) and iuniores (juniors).
Aside from potentially being a nod to younger men in Roman society (see: May), June was most likely named after Juno, the goddess of women, marriage and childbirth and the wife of Jupiter, king of all gods.
Originally, all of the months that followed June were simply named in numerical order (Quintilis for the fifth month, aka what we now know of as July, and Sixtilis for the sixth month, or our modern-day August). However, Quintilis was eventually rebranded as Iulius in honor of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., as July was the month of his birth.
The “July” name stuck after Caesar was assassinated, and so the emperor Augustus wanted to flex in this manner as well. In 8 B.C., Augustus renamed the month of Sextilis in his own image. Augustus wasn’t his birth name by the way — it comes from the Latin augustus, which means “venerable.”
The Rest Of Them
September, October, November and December have a slightly more boring origin story — sorry, months. In Latin, the roots septem, octo, novem and dec mean seven, eight, nine and ten, respectively. Remember that September was originally the seventh month of the year, not the ninth. As Caesar always said (he didn’t say this), if you know your numbers, then you know your month meanings.