- n. The fourth month of the Gregorian calendar, following March and preceding May.
April is very much a French word; one of the many to be found in Chaucer. Here’s a short section of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales with the French-origin words italicized (excerpted from Henry Hitchings’ The Secret Life of Words):
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtu engendred is the flour
When we say French, of course, we almost certainly mean Latin, since most of the French words in English came either from the Norman conquest or normal cultural exchange, and most French words take their origins in Latin. April is particularly interesting, however, since it may ultimately be an Etruscan borrowing. But we’ll get to April in due course.
You may remember from a previous post that our names for days of the week tend to be Germanic in origin (though occasionally with shared Latin equivalents). The months of the year, however, are though & through Latin constructs. They are a bit of a hodgepodge, however.
January. January is from the Latin Januarius1, or the “month of Janus”—in essence, a dedication to the god Janus, the guardian of gateways and portals… whose name, incidentally, is Latin for a gate or passageway. The Etymology Dictionary posits an ultimate root in the proto-Indo-European *ei-, or “to-go.” In any case, the original Latin was transmitted to English by way of the Old Norman French Genever as Ieneuer in the late 13th century. Incidentally, the term replaced the much cooler Old English geola se æfterra, or “after Yule”
February. The Latin februarius mensis means “month of purification,” from februa (purifications). In Old French, it had become Feverier, though it was borrowed into English as feoverel. In another shame against good Germanic words, February replaced the Old English solmonaþ, which means “mud month” and—I think—more closely reflects reality2.
March. As you can probably tell from the above Chaucer excerpt, March too is French in origin. Marche is from the Old French marz, from the Latin Martius, or “Month of Mars.” Mars, as I likely need not tell you, was the God of War (among other things), from where we get “martial law” and “martial arts”3. The Latinate word replaced the Old English Hreðmonaþ, which rather tenuously connects to a possibly-apocryphal goddess of war Hreðe.
April. The Latin Aprilis refers to the month of Venus, the love god. How is this possible, you think? Remember that Venus was the Roman (Latinate) name for the Greek Aphrodite. It is believed that the Latin Aprilis comes from an Etruscan variant (Apru) of the Greek. In any case, the word entered Old French as avrill and eventually 13th century English as aueril. The more modern apprile comes about a century later.
May. May comes to us from the Old French mai, from the Latin Maius mensis, most likely referring to the minor Roman goddess Maia, wife of Vulcan. Some trace the name back to the PIE *mag-ya, which is a feminized form of *meg, from which we also get the Latin magnus (“great”) and therefore the very grandiose, masculine magnum, magnum opus, and magnanimous.
June. June is an early 12th century borrowing from the Latin Junius, from Juno, the Roman/Latin goddess of marriage. In Old English it replaced liþe se Ærra, or “earlier mildness,” which is, I think, much more picturesque. Juno is possibly “the young one” from same root which gives us “juvenile” and “junior.”
July. July, as one might expect, is ultimately from the Latin Julius (through Old French jule and the Anglicized julie) and named after Gaius Julius Caesar, who was born in this period of the Roman calendar (known prior as Quintilis). The Old English it replaced is liþa se æfterra, of “later mildness.” More literally, after the mildness (liþa meaning “mildness”), which one can sort of intuit from looking at the phrase.
August. As long as we’re talking about Roman emperors, of course, August is also named after Augustus Caesar. This isn’t a name, of course: augustus is a Latin adjective meaning “venerable” or “distinguished” (and therefore the alternate use of “august,” which also gives us “augmented” and “augur”). I need hardly point out that the Germanic version which was replaced is much cooler: Weodmonaþ means “weed month.”
September. September begins the months that no longer have anything to do with gods or rulers; instead, the months begin a completely uncreative span of number-based names. September comes from the Latin septem, which means “seven” because it was the seventh month of the Roman calendar. This Latinate version was adopted into the late period of Old English (perhaps by Christian missionaries on the isles?). It replaced hærfestmonaþ, which was the month of the harvest (you see it?). It’s important to note that while the prefix at play here refers to seven, September is the ninth month in the Gregorian calendar: the old Roman calendar, under which these names arose, was comprised of only ten months, beginning with our March, and so there is a two-month difference between the etymological meaning of certain month names and their actual calendar representation today.
October. This is a direct borrowing from Latin, and obvious from the octo- prefix, meaning “eight,” from which we get our “octopus” and “octothorpe.” “Octo” is even a PIE prefix, so its meaning stretches back far beyond Latin and even Greek.
November. November comes through Old French from the Latin Novembris, from novem (“nine”). It replaced—ready for it?—Blotmonaþ, or “blood-month,” which was the month of sacrifice when Saxons butchered their livestock for the winter and offered them—symbolically, anyway—as sacrifices to the various and sundry Germanic gods. How freaking cool would it be to celebrate Thanksgiving in “Blood-Month”?
December. December is another straightfoward translation, though our Modern English spelling is closer to the Latin than the transitional Old French. Ultimately, it’s from the prefix decem, meaning “ten,” from whence we get “decimal” and “decade.” Its Old English precursor was something along the lines of giuli se Ærra—”before the Yule.”
The general trend you’ll find in month-naming schemes is that the Roman system, and especially the new Gregorian system, tended to be systematized; etymologically, they were a form of ruler-worship, hearkening either to the gods or to the emperor. In that latter half, as you’ll see, they lost pretty much all creativity. The old Anglo-Saxon scheme, however, didn’t have a fixed month-length, but referred generally to seasons or seasonal periods which had only vague correspondence to the Roman months.
The Venerable Bede constructed an Anglo-Saxon calendar, which was reconstructed in 1976 by Charles Jones.
| Bede’s Month Name
(after Jones, 1976)
| Normalized West Saxon
(Clark Hall, 1960)
|Giuli||[the after] Geola||January|
|Lida||[the ere] Liþa||June|
|Lida||[the after] Liþa||July|
|Giuli||[the ere] Geola||December|
Table © John Robert Stone, 1997
- Interesting sidenote: the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro means, quite literally, “River of January” because Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered it on January 1, 1502[↩]
- Some etymologies note the sol- and translate as “sun month,” but sol- is Latinate; actually, Sól has an etymologically history in Norse languages as “sun” as well, but in Old English, “sol” was a word for mud.[↩]
- Not to mentioned, ultimately, the opening theme to Star Wars: Episode IV[↩]