Since the dawn of language, people have come up with a lot of different ways to talk about weather and the passage of time. A few of them are rational. Everything in the Chinese calendar is numbered, from yi yue (January, “one month”) to shi-er yue (“twelve month”). The Portuguese, a people who blew open the frontiers of the known world and scoured lands from Brazil to China in search of commercial profit, set Sunday, domingo, aside as the Lord’s day. But every single other day is named for the market day: segunda-feira, terça-feira, quarta-feira (second fair for Monday, third for Tuesday, fourth for Wednesday), et cetera.
More often, modern month names speak to how a culture’s ancient ancestors lived. This January, Muslims from Mecca to Stockholm will mark the month of Rajab, when fighting was forbidden in ancient Arabia. Next comes Sha’ban, “scattered,” the month when families would spread out to find what water they could before Ramadan, “burning heat.”
English actually used to work this way. For the Anglo-Saxons, February was Solmonath, “muddy month.” It was dreary, but at least we had survived the lurid wintry tribulations of Wolfmonath. But since converting to Christianity, England, like most of the other nations of Europe, uses the Roman calendar.
Latin has been (mostly) dead for over a millennium, and it has been even longer since anyone worshipped Roman gods. You would not know it from our calendars. The very ancient Romans were actually quite straightforward — their ordinal calendar is preserved from this month through the end of the year. But why is the septima (seventh) month now the ninth, and the decima (tenth) now the twelfth?
As so often in language, turns out the system that defines our daily lives has an origin as random as it is bizarre. Romans marked their years by who the consuls were, and they traditionally took office in March, a month named after Mars because it was when the weather was good enough in central Italy to marshal an army. But in 153 B.C., a military crisis in Spain prompted that year’s commanders to get started two months early. The next year’s consuls did not want to be cheated out of glory, so they started early, too. The crisis was resolved (though Spain is no longer Roman), but future generations never set things right.
The new first month, at least, makes some poetic sense. January is named for Janus, the two-faced god of change. But February is named for some arcane pagan cleansing ritual. April comes from aprere, “to open,” because flowers opened then, while May and June honour goddesses associated with fertility.
Our next months actually kept the old pattern until relatively recently. Were it not for Emperor Augustus’ nous for eternal propaganda, we would have our summer holidays in Quintember and Sextember. But before we lament how our lives still revolve around paganism and imperial megalomania, we should consider what might have been. Caligula named September after himself, but after his death few wanted to remember the man who made his horse consul, forced his legions to fight a war against the sea, and is commemorated today chiefly in pornographic films. Not to be outdone, Commodus named all the months after himself, but thankfully for anyone trying to plan anything, that did not stick, either.
Whether their ancestors were Romans or barbarians, almost all the peoples of Europe mark their years by the Roman calendar. Several Slavic languages (interestingly, not including Russian) still use the old Slavic names; as in everything else, the Finns, Hungarians, and (Lord knows) Basques go their own way. But all still derive from the weather or religious beliefs of their ancient forebears.
Interestingly, English and other Germanic languages still count their days by Germanic names, but mostly honour the same gods as the Romans. Tuesday is for war, whether the god of war is Mars or Tyr; Thursday is apparently a very thundery day, whether you name it after Jupiter, Thor, or thunder itself (e.g., Dutch donderdag). Fittingly, Friday is beautiful.
There have been a few revolutionary attempts to shake free of our ancient roots, to finally open a new age. French Revolutionaries introduced a new calendar with ten-hour days, ten-day weeks, and years numbered from the date of la Révolution. In a style choice that they considered rationalistic, but actually corresponded to primitive sensibilities across the world, they named the months for the prevailing weather in Paris.
However, after the Thermidorian Reaction (an anti-radical coup that took place in July 1794, thus during the month of Thermidor, “burning hot”), sentiment cooled on the new calendar. People kept using the metric system, but base-ten weeks never caught on. Napoleon finally abolished it in Year XI, in favour of the calendar of the Roman emperors he so admired. He, however, never took any of the months for himself.
In A.D. 380, Theodosius made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. The old ways died slowly, but basically nobody has worshipped the Roman gods in 1,500 years. You would not know it from how we mark our days. No matter what people believe, or what their ancestors ever believed, people around the world still honour them every day of our lives.