Month Names

As a linguist and author, I am intrigued by the words we English speakers use and how we use them. A good example is the way we have named the months of the year.

January is named after Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates. February is named for Februalia, a time period something like the Christian Lent, when sacrifices were offered to atone for sins. March gets its name from Mars, the god of war. April is something of a problem—I’ll come back to that month’s name. May comes from Maia, best known for being the mother of Hermes. June’s name comes from the goddess Juno, the queen of the gods. July and August are unique in that they take they names from real people, July from Julius Caesar and August from Augustus Caesar.

All months after that are named for numbers, but not for numbers that correspond to their current place in the year. September, the ninth month in the modern calendar, for example, takes its name from the Latin word for “seven.” October has a name that means “eight,” November one that means “nine,” and December one that means “ten.”

April’s name origin is a matter of controversy among linguists and historians. One train of thought is that the name came from the Latin word aprilis, which is derived from the Latin verb aperire meaning “to open.” That could be a reference to the opening or blossoming of flowers and trees, a common occurrence throughout the month of April in the Northern Hemisphere.

Another theory holds that since months are often named for gods and goddesses, and since the word aphrilis is derived from the Greek Aphrodite, maybe the intent was to name the month for the Greek goddess of love (the goddess that the Romans called Venus).

To me, April has always meant “opening” because of its similarity to the words that mean “to open” in Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian—aperire, ouvrir, abrir, and aprire, respectively. And I always think of it as referring to the opening of the welcoming season when it’s warm and comfortable.

Like so many other aspects of modern American English, the names we have given our months tells us great deal about who we are and where we came from. One day soon, I’ll take on another set of oddities: the origins of the names we give to the days of the week.

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