The History of English Podcast - Episode 18: Keeping Time With The Romans

Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English


This is episode 18, Keeping Time with the Romans.

The last time we looked at the emergence of the ancient Celts who once dominated much

of Central and Western Europe, and we looked at the defeat of those same Celts by the Romans

in the region known as Gaul, which is basically modern day France.

And the Latin dialect spoken in that region eventually evolved into an early form of French

known as Old French, and it was this version of French which the Normans brought with them

to England in 1066 and which radically transformed English into the language we have today.

Now this time I want to talk about time, or at least the Roman concept of time, because

not only do many of our time-related terms come from Latin, but also because it helps

to illustrate how the language of the Romans permeates modern English, and it also makes

for some good etymology.

So let’s return to where we left off last time, with Roman Gaul, the region that would

eventually become known as France.

And at this point in our story, Gaul was a newly conquered Roman territory, and the conqueror

was Julius Caesar, and Caesar was also now the dictator of what would soon become the

Roman Empire.

Now Julius Caesar was an historical figure who has impacted the English language in many


His name exists in modern English as the medical procedure known as the Caesarean section,

or C-section, and this is supposedly because Caesar himself was born by this method.

By the way, that’s probably a myth, because during the time of Caesar, babies were only

surgically removed from the womb when the mother died in childbirth.

And Roman medicine wasn’t capable of surgically removing a baby the way modern medicine can,

so it was basically a last-ditch effort to save a baby when the mother died or was destined

to die in childbirth.

But Caesar’s mother was alive during Caesar’s lifetime, according to recorded sources.

So Caesar himself was apparently not born by that method.

Now some historians have noted that Caesar had a somewhat prominent relative who was

also named Julius Caesar, and this other Julius Caesar was apparently born by that method.

And so there’s some speculation that the similarity of the names caused the confusion, and that’s

why the Caesarean has generally been attributed to the more famous Caesar.

Now I should note that the modern English pronunciation of Julius Caesar is quite different

from the way the name would have been pronounced in Latin during the time of Caesar.

And I mention this in part because a few listeners with a background in Latin have asked me about

the name of the god Jupiter.

In an earlier episode, I noted that the name of the god Jupiter developed from an original

Indo-European word meaning Sky Father.

Now technically, classical Latin didn’t have the J sound.

So Jupiter was pronounced Jupiter during the period of Latin.

And the Y sound in Jupiter was represented by the letter I.

And the same was true of the name Julius.

It was actually pronounced Julius during the period of classical Latin, and again it was

spelled I-U-L-I-U-S.

The J sound actually developed in very late Latin, beyond the classical Latin period.

And one place where it developed was in Gaul.

Now many parts of the Roman Empire had a local Latin dialect, which are sometimes called

vulgar Latin dialects because they were the dialects of the common people of that region.

And those dialects weren’t the standard Latin dialect of the classical period.

And in Gaul, the Latin dialect developed several new sounds.

I’ve already discussed in an earlier episode how the K sound began to shift to an S sound

before certain letters.

And the H sound also began to disappear from the language, which is why we still sometimes

have silent H’s in words borrowed from Latin.

And the Y sound began to shift to a brand new J sound in many words.

So Jupiter became Jupiter.

And Julius became Julius.

Now these changes were part of the transition from late Latin into a very early form of

French called Old French.

And these changes would be further impacted by the arrival of a Germanic tribe called

the Franks, who would eventually oversee the transition of Gaul into the Frankish Kingdom

and then eventually into the nation we know today as France.

But that’s all much later in our story.

So that’s how Julius became Julius.

But what about Caesar?

Well, during the period of classical Latin, Caesar was actually pronounced Kaiser.

Remember that the C always had the K sound in Latin.

And as I just noted, the K sound shifted to an S sound before an E and an I in Old French.

So from Julius Kaiser to Julius Caesar, we can hear the impact of sound changes in late

Latin and early French.

And we can see how those changes impacted modern English.

Modern English may not sound like French, but the way many English words are pronounced

is a direct inheritance from French.

And it also starts to explain why many English spellings can seem so random and complicated.

Now after Caesar’s assassination, the name Caesar was adopted as a general name for Roman


So Rome actually had many Caesars after Julius Caesar.

And because of the heavy influence of the Romans, the term Caesar passed into German

and Russian as well, where it also meant the top military or political leader.

Remember Caesar was pronounced Kaiser in classical Latin.

So the term passed into German as Kaiser.

And it was still in use in the Austro-Hungarian Empire until World War I.

And the term passed into Russian as Tsar.

And it too was in use in Russia as late as the 20th century.

Now the term Tsar has also been borrowed into English as a term for certain top political


So the drug Tsar in the United States is the person responsible for enforcing U.S. drug


Again, drug Tsar literally means drug Caesar in its original sense.

Now there’s something else that we typically associate with Julius Caesar, and that’s the

Julian calendar.

This calendar was developed at the instruction of Caesar, and it’s the direct ancestor of

the calendar we use today.

So let’s talk about time and how the ancients measured it.

Last time I discussed the ancient Celts, and I explained how Caesar conquered the Celtic

territory of Gaul.

And I mentioned that the ancient Celts didn’t have a written language, and that’s generally


But as the Celts began to encounter other literate people, like the Greeks and the Romans,

it does appear that they began to adopt some very early limited writing, like for inscriptions.

And this occurred around the same time the Romans invaded Gaul.

Now Caesar actually noted that the Celtic tribes had adopted some very limited writing

for inscriptions.

And this was all confirmed about 150 years ago when the remains of a Celtic calendar

dating from the 1st century B.C. was discovered in France, which, as we now know, was once

the Roman territory of Gaul.

So given that date, the 1st century B.C., it means the calendar was being used by Celts

in Gaul around the same time Caesar invaded the territory.

And the writing on the calendar used Roman lettering and numerals, but it was written

entirely in a Celtic dialect.

The calendar highlights several dates which were important to the Celts for ceremonial

or agricultural purposes, or perhaps for both.

And that makes it the oldest surviving document in a Celtic language.

And it confirms that the Celts were not the barbarians the Romans considered them to be.

And as I said, the calendar predates the Roman occupation, and it shows a sophisticated series

of astronomical calculations, which is completely independent of the calendar developed by the


Now, I mention this Celtic calendar for two reasons.

First, to make the point that shortly before the languages of the continental Celts died

out, they had begun to adopt some limited writing for inscriptions and notations.

But the other reason is to talk about the importance of ancient calendars and timekeeping.

Many of our modern English words related to dates and timekeeping come from the Romans.

In fact, many of them come directly from Julius Caesar himself.

For example, the name of the month of July comes directly from the name Julius in Julius


And as I said earlier, the so-called Julian calendar comes from certain reforms to the

calendar implemented by Caesar himself.

So let’s take a closer look at that ancient Roman calendar.

Now in ancient times, the most important measurements of time were days, months, and years.

I mean, today we spend a lot of time focusing on hours and seconds and minutes, but that’s

largely a product of modern technology and our fast-paced culture.

But to the ancients, it was much more important to keep track of days and months and years.

Seasonal measurements were essential to an agricultural society.

Determining when to plant and when to harvest was essential for survival in these ancient


And that’s why ancient monuments like Stonehenge, which predate both the ancient Celts and the

Romans by many centuries, it probably had an astrological function, at least in part.

And seasonal measurements were also important for military purposes.

Military campaigns were avoided in the colder climates of Europe during the winter months.

So the three basic forms of time measurement for ancient people, again, were days, months,

and years.

Now, a day is very simple.

As we know, that’s the length of time it takes for the earth to make one complete rotation

on its axis.

Or as the ancients would have viewed it, the length of time it takes for the sun to make

one complete revolution around the earth.

So since the day was measured by the perceived movement of the sun, the sun was closely associated

with the concept of a day.

The original Indo-European word for sky was something like dyu.

This word also meant to shine, like sunshine.

So it came to be associated with the concept of a day.

And you may remember this word as part of the original Indo-European word for God, which

was sky-father.

It produced the Sanskrit word dāyaspitār.

It also produced the Greek word zuspetr, which was later shortened to Zeus.

And it also produced the name of the Anglo-Saxon god Teu, which gave us Tuesday, another time-related

term, but more on that later.

And that same original Indo-European word produced the Latin word diupatr, which became

Jupiter, and then Jupiter in Late Latin and Early French, as I mentioned earlier.

Well, this Indo-European word for sky or shine, dyu, it ultimately produced two other words

in Latin.

One word was deus, which came to be a generic term for God.

And we see that word in modern English, in words borrowed from Latin, for example in

words like deity and divine, and even in the French word adieu, which literally meant to

God and came to mean, God be with you, as a standard way of saying goodbye.

The other word which developed in Latin from that original Indo-European word dyu was deus.

And that word meant day in Latin.

So there you can see how the original Indo-European word for sky or shine developed the Latin

words for both God and day.

Now with regard to the Latin word for day, which remember was deus, it produced modern

English words like diary, which was a journal of the day’s events.

And it produced a word like dial, as in part of a sundial that marks the daylight hours.

And it produced the word diet, which is how much you ate each day.

And it also produced the word adjourn, which meant to put off to another day.

Now during the Middle Ages, it was common for calendars to set aside two days of each

month, so 24 days total for the year, as evil days or unlucky days.

In Latin, the term evil day was dies malus, combining the Latin word dies for day and

malus for evil.

Well an evil day, or dies malus, became anglicized during the period of Middle English and it

became known as the dismal days.

And from this we get the modern English adjective dismal, meaning dreary or unfortunate.

So the Latin word deus meant day.

So did the modern English word day come from this Latin word deus?

Well according to most modern linguists, the answer is actually no.

The English word day comes from an old English word, deia, which had a different Indo-European


And you may think there’s a connection between the English word day and the word date, but

again linguists tell us that each of those words are not actually cognate.

The word date comes from a Latin word unrelated to those I’ve already mentioned and having

an altogether different Indo-European root.

So I’ve discussed the ancient concept of a day, which was directly connected to the concept

of the sun and the sky and sunshine or daylight.

So let’s consider the concept of a month.

And as you might suspect, just as a day is connected to the sun, a month is connected

to the moon.

A month was based on the movement of the moon around the earth.

Specifically, one complete orbit of the moon around the earth represented a month.

And for the ancients, this cycle was based on observing the changing phases of the moon.

So from one new moon to the next, you had a month.

Now we can easily see the connection of moon and month in modern English because both words

come to us from Old English and they both ultimately come from the same Indo-European


The Indo-European root word was mensis and it produced the original Germanic word menin

for moon and meneth for month.

And that Germanic language gave us the Old English word muna for moon and munath for


So moon and month have a direct lineage and they still closely resemble each other because

they both come to us via the same sources, Indo-European to Germanic to Old English to

Middle English and then to Modern English.

Words that do that tend to maintain a close resemblance over time.

And we still see that in those two words, month and moon.

Now Latin also developed a word from that same original Indo-European root word mensis

and the Latin word was very similar, pronounced mensis.

And this word is the root of menstruate and menstrual in Modern English, again referring

to a monthly cycle.

The Romans also used this word mensis to represent a period of six months.

They combined the Latin word for six, which was sex, with the word mensis to create the

word semester, which originally meant a period of six months or half a year.

Of course, it’s evolved in Modern English to mean half of a school year.

So month, moon, menstrual, and semester are all cognate.

All relate back to the original Indo-European word for moon.

But Latin also developed a separate word for moon.

And that other word is actually the more familiar Latin word in Modern English.

That word was luna, which gives us the Modern English word lunar, as in lunar eclipse or

lunar phase or, as we’ll see shortly, lunar calendar.

Now there’s a direct connection between the Latin words mensis and luna, both meaning


And that’s because the ancient Romans had a moon goddess named Luna.

So the Romans eventually associated the term luna with the moon itself.

And so luna came to refer to the moon and things associated with the moon.

Now this Latin word also came from an original Indo-European word, which was something like

leuc, and meant light or brightness.

And this Indo-European root word gave us a Germanic word, which came into Old English

as leut.

And that is the original version of the word light.

So light came from the same root word, which produced luna in Latin.

And this Indo-European root word, leuc, actually produced several words in Latin.

And from those Latin words we get Modern English words like luster, referring to the way certain

bright things look.

We get lucid, which originally meant shining.

We get illustrate and elucidate, which meant to shine a light on something.

We get translucent, which is something that light can shine through.

We get luminous and illuminate, which again refers to the brightness of something.

And as I said earlier, we get the Latin word luna, which produced both lunar and lunatic.

So what’s the connection between lunar and lunatic, you ask?

Well, since the Roman goddess Luna was the goddess of the sphere which was closest to

the earth, the Romans thought that she had a great deal of power.

The phases of the moon were thought to reflect changes in her mood.

And they also thought that her changing mood was responsible for many mental conditions.

So people who acted abnormally or crazy were thought to be under the influence of Luna.

And again, this was thought to be connected to the moon in some way.

So this condition has come to be known as lunacy, and a person who suffers from it is

called a lunatic.

Of course, the idea that the moon makes people a little crazy, it’s passed into our modern

culture as well.

We still speak of people acting a little strange on a full moon.

And some of this is an inheritance from the Germanic culture, which had notions which

were very similar to the Romans.

The Germanic culture developed the concept of a werewolf, which was a human who turned

into a wolf on a full moon.

Remember from an earlier episode that the Old English word for man was wer, and a man-wolf

was a werwolf.

And we still have notions of someone going crazy and howling at the moon.

Again, it was a common belief in ancient cultures that the moon affected the mental and psychological

conditions of people.

So we see that reflected in modern English as well.

So I’ve talked about the connection of a day to the sun and the sky and sunlight.

And I’ve discussed the connection of a month to the moon and moonlight.

So what about a year?

Well like a day and a month, a year was based around astronomy.

A year was the length of time it took for the seasons to complete a full cycle.

So in modern astronomical terms, it’s the length of time it takes for the earth to make

one complete orbit around the sun.

Now ancient people didn’t really understand that the earth moved around the sun.

But they did understand the concept of seasons, like summer, autumn, winter, and spring.

And they understood that those seasons came in regular cycles.

And they were able to measure those cycles by the trajectory of the sun’s movement across

the sky at various points during the year.

And also by measuring the length of the days and the nights.

Long days meant more heat and therefore good conditions for planting.

Long nights meant more cold and a time for harvesting and storing food.

And of course the sun’s trajectory and the length of the days and nights, they all vary

because the earth is tilted on its axis.

When the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, we get longer days, and thus spring

and summer.

And when the earth moves around the sun as part of its natural orbit, eventually the

earth is located on the opposite side of the sun.

And now the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun.

So the days become shorter and we get autumn and winter.

But twice a year, the nine in the day are the exact same length, or almost the exact

same length if you want to be technical.

Now this occurs when the earth reaches the two transition points in its movement around

the sun.

And the Romans called these two dates the equal night, since the night was equal to

the day on those two dates.

The Latin term for equal was equus, and the term for night was nox.

So when those two words were combined, they gave us the word equinox.

Now one equinox occurs in March, and it’s called the vernal equinox from the Latin word

ver, which meant spring.

And this marks the point when the days start to become longer than the nights.

So it marks the beginning of spring.

And the other equinox occurs in September, and it marks the transition point at which

the days start to become shorter than the nights.

So in other words, it marks the beginning of autumn.

And this was called the autumnal equinox by the Romans from the Latin word autumnus, meaning


Now similar in concept to the equinox was the solstice.

The solstice also occurs twice a year, and it’s basically the opposite of an equinox.

The first solstice is the day when the daylight is at its longest, and the night is at its


So this longest day of the year occurs in June, and it’s called the summer solstice,

and it marks the beginning of summer.

And the other solstice is the day when the daylight is at its shortest, and the night

is at its longest.

And this shortest day of the year is the winter solstice, and it marks the beginning of winter.

Now the trajectory of the sun through the sky, that trajectory moves over the course

of the year.

And on the summer solstice the sun reaches its highest trajectory, and on the winter

solstice the sun reaches its lowest trajectory.

Ancient people could very easily measure the beginning of summer and winter by keeping

track of the sun’s trajectory.

And when it reached its height it was summer, and when it reached its lowest it was winter.

On the two dates when it appeared to stop for the day before changing directions, it

was called a solstice, which combined the Latin terms for sun, which was sol, and to

stand still, which was sistera.

Thus since the trajectory of the sun appeared to stand still on those two days before it

changed directions, those days were called a solstice.

So by keeping track of the sun’s movement in the sky, and by keeping track of the length

of the days and nights, ancient people could predict the seasons.

So these transition dates were easy to measure, and they were very important.

As I noted earlier, for agricultural purposes alone, it told the people when to plant and

when to harvest and when to begin storing food for the winter.

Remember even the Stone Age people who built Stonehenge understood these concepts because

the stones at Stonehenge are arranged in a way that they actually measure the movements

of the sun for these purposes.

And like the Romans who associated the sun with God, the builders of Stonehenge also

apparently used the monument for both astronomical and religious purposes.

And the Celtic Druids who eventually migrated to Britain also recognized this purpose because

they too used Stonehenge for both astronomical and religious purposes.

So we can really see the connections here between the heavens and the ancient concept

of heaven.

Now, even though ancient peoples may not have understood that the earth revolves around

the sun, they did understand how to measure the movement of the sun’s trajectory in

the sky, and how to measure the relative length of the days and nights.

And they understood these events occurred at fixed intervals, and that they marked the

changing of the seasons.

So they had a definite concept of a year.

Now the English word year comes from Old English and it actually goes back to the original

Indo-European language.

The Indo-European root word bears a remarkable similarity to the modern English word.

It was something like yer, and it meant year or season in the original Indo-European language.

It also produced a Greek word hora, which originally meant season in Greek, and it produced

the word horoscope in modern English.

Now the Greek word hora later came to be used to refer to a part of the day, like the

morning or noon or night.

And it eventually evolved into our modern word hour.

And here’s what happened.

The Greeks had encountered the Babylonians, who were using sundials.

And the sundials were divided into twelve segments.

You might remember from an earlier episode that I mentioned that the Indo-Europeans tended

to count in increments of ten, as is reflected in our modern numbers.

But the Babylonians tended to count in terms of twelves and sixties.

And that tendency was reflected in the Babylonian sundials.

So the daytime was divided into these twelve equal segments on the sundial.

Since these were sundials, they didn’t really measure the night time.

So initially it was only the daytime that was divided into twelve segments.

Now the sundial began measuring time at dawn, so that was the first hour.

And that meant that the darkness came at the twelfth hour.

And it’s in this sense that we have the term the eleventh hour in modern English, to mean

near the very end or the last opportunity before time runs out.

Now the Greeks had encountered the Babylonians and had borrowed their sundials, and thus

their concept of dividing the day into twelve segments.

And the phrase eleventh hour is actually a phrase used in the book of Matthew in the

New Testament of the Bible.

Remember that the New Testament was written in Greek, and it borrowed the Greek concept

of time, with the twelfth hour being the onset of darkness at night.

So the eleventh hour was nearly at the end of the day.

And that’s actually the origin of the term the eleventh hour in modern English.

Now the Greeks had borrowed the concept of time from the Babylonians, and the Romans

borrowed this same concept from the Greeks.

They also borrowed that Greek word hora, which, remember, came from the same original

Indo-European root word as the modern English word year.

By this point, though, the Romans no longer pronounced the initial h in the word hora,

so it became ora, and eventually, in modern English, became hour.

I mentioned earlier that Latin eventually lost the h sound, and we see that here.

And that’s why the word hour has that silent h at the beginning, because it was originally

pronounced by the Greeks in the original Greek version of the word.

Now I’ve already mentioned that the amount of daylight varies throughout the year.

So a Roman hour was merely one twelfth of the daylight, ever how long that was on a

given day.

So an hour was longer in the summer months, since a day was longer then.

And by the same token, an hour was shorter in the winter months, when a day was shorter.

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the hour was given a precise measurement by allocating

twelve segments to the day, and a corresponding twelve segments to the night.

And these twelve segments thus created twenty-four total segments in the day.

And this created our modern concept of an hour.

This also reflects the movement away from using the sun to measure hours.

As early mechanical watches began to be developed, the sun was no longer needed to measure time.

And this begins the movement toward measuring time more in terms of hours and minutes, rather

than days, years, and months.

So based on the information I just presented, the words year and horoscope and hour are

all cognate, having evolved from the same Indo-European root word.

But again, they get to us in various ways, year coming from the Germanic languages, and

horoscope and hour coming from Greek and Latin.

But again, just like with the word month, which I discussed earlier, the Roman word

for year didn’t come from the same root as the English word year.

The Roman word came from a separate Indo-European word, which was at, which meant to go, or

a period gone through, in the original Indo-European language.

This word at later evolved into the word atnos in an early form of Latin, and then

evolved into the word anus in Classical Latin, and that’s the word which the Romans used

for year.

Of course, we get that word in English as annual and anniversary, meaning once a year,

and annuity, which originally meant a sum that was paid yearly.

And in finance, we sometimes calculate interest per annum, which again means per year.

So let’s take a breather for a second and consider where we are.

So far in this episode, I’ve discussed some words which came from the name of Julius Caesar,

and I’ve explored the etymology of words which we have related to hours, days, months, and


Now I want to put those two together, because as I’ve noted earlier, it was Julius Caesar

who oversaw the revision of the Roman calendar, and gave us the roots of the calendar which

we use every day.

Now there’s been a lot of discussion in recent months about the Mayan calendar and the purported

end of the world.

So even if you don’t know a lot about keeping time in the ancient past, you probably know

that ancient peoples had many different calendars and many different ways of measuring months

and years.

And I mentioned a Celtic calendar from Gaul earlier in this episode, which had its own


So you may wonder why this was all so complicated in ancient times.

Why didn’t everybody just figure out how to keep track of time?

After all, everybody was measuring time based on these same basic principles.

A day was the period from sunrise to sunrise.

A month was the period from one new moon to the next.

A year was the period from one summer solstice to the next.

Pretty much everyone used these same celestial events to keep track of time, so why couldn’t

they all get on the same page?

The same calendar page in this case.

Well part of the answer is because these three celestial events, an astronomical day, an

astronomical month, and an astronomical year, they don’t divide evenly into each other.

They’re three events which we just happen to use to measure time, but none of them fit

neatly and evenly into the others.

So let’s take a day.

That’s the most basic form of measurement.

And even in ancient times, everybody generally agreed on what a day was, from sunrise to


But the first problem is that you can’t divide an astronomical month into an even number

of days.

There’s no perfect division for a month.

The amount of time it takes the moon to orbit the earth, in other words to experience a

complete moon cycle from new moon to new moon, it’s about twenty-nine and a half days.

Now as a practical matter, there was no way ancient people could keep track of a precise

measurement of twenty-nine and a half days.

So they had to round it off to the nearest day.

And that meant if they were counting strictly by days, over a period of many months, the

moon cycles were out of phase.

So they had to readjust from time to time.

And we encounter the same problem when we look at a year.

A year is based on the amount of time it takes the earth to orbit the sun.

But based solely on this factor, one orbit equals three hundred and sixty-five and one

quarter days.

Again, if you round this off to three hundred and sixty-five days, as we do today, then

every four years you have to readjust by adding a day, which we call leap day.

The point here is that the three astronomical events, which were the basis of days, months

and years, are three completely different things, and you can’t use one to measure

the others without using complicated fractions, which were impractical in ancient times.

And if you round off to the nearest number, then the measurements soon fall out of line

without constant readjustments.

So these constant fractions and leftover hours and days confounded these early calendar makers.

Yet, as I’ve noted, these calculations were very important to people during ancient times.

If you didn’t plant and harvest crops at the right times, it was often a matter of

life and death.

So early people struggled with the proper calculations for these activities, and they

devised all sorts of calendars to make the necessary adjustments, which were required

to make these numbers reconcile and balance out over time.

So how did the Romans handle this problem?

Well, if we go back to the very beginning of Rome, around the time Rome was founded,

the Romans used a ten lunar month year with an additional winter period that was not even

part of the calendar, so they didn’t measure a year by a certain number of days like we

do today.

Instead it was based on a certain number of months, and that’s why we call it a lunar


So let’s look at how the Romans did this.

Like many ancient peoples, the Romans kept track of the length of the days, and they

could determine the vernal equinox in spring when the length of the day and the length

of the night were the same.

This marks the beginning of spring, and it was an indicator of the planting season.

So when the vernal equinox occurred, the Romans began counting.

This was the date when their ten-month lunar calendar would begin.

So it ran from modern-day March until around modern-day January.

Then they waited through the undefined winter period, where they were basically off the

grid, until the vernal equinox occurred again, and then they began counting the ten months

all over again.

Now this original ten-month calendar also explains some of the names of the months.

If you’re familiar with Latin or any of the Romance languages, you probably recognize

the Latin prefixes of septum for seven, and octo for eight, and novum for nine, and decum

for ten.

And I’ve discussed some of those prefixes in earlier episodes, and we see them all the

time in English in words like octopus, for a sea animal with eight legs, and decade,

for a period of ten years.

But September is not the seventh month, it’s the ninth month.

And October is not the eighth month, it’s the tenth month.

And November is not the ninth month, it’s the eleventh.

And December, which is based on the Latin root decum, well, it’s not the tenth month,

it’s the twelfth month.

Now part of the reason why these month names seem out of sorts is because the original

Roman calendar only had ten months.

And the names of the last four months were based on the Roman numerals, septum for seven,

octo for eight, novum for nine, and decum for ten.

And those month names became September, October, November, and December.

And those were months seven through ten, and just as today, they were the final four months

of the year.

So in the original Roman calendar, those numbers matched.

But what about the first six months, beginning with the vernal equinox in spring?

Well, the very first month was called Martius, after the Roman god Mars.

Now Mars was originally a god of agriculture before becoming a god of war.

And since the first month came at the beginning of spring, it meant the time for planting

crops and preparing to plant crops.

It was also the month in which military campaigns were often initiated, since the cold weather

was starting to break.

So that’s why the spring month was named after Mars, since he was the god of both agriculture

and war.

The name of the month became Marsh in Old French, and English took the name from French

after the Norman invasion.

The second month was called Apollos.

Now historians are not certain where this name originated.

Some have suggested an Etruscan origin, with the Greek goddess Aphrodite, or from Apollo,

who also had Etruscan origins.

It became Avril in Old French, and again English took the name from the French after the Norman

invasion and eventually converted it into April.

The third month was called Maias, after the goddess Maia, who was the mother of Mercury

by Jupiter.

It became Mai in Old French, and again English took the name from the French after the Norman

invasion, eventually converting it into May.

The fourth month was called Junius, probably after the god Juno, which eventually became

Juno in late Gallic Latin and early French.

Remember this was the same change that made Julius into Julius and Jupiter into Jupiter,

and the month Junius became Junius.

The name later evolved into June during the Middle English period, again after the Norman


So the first four months we still have in Modern English, March, April, May, and June.

And the last four months we also have September, October, November, and December.

But what about the two months in the middle of the original ten-month Roman calendar,

months five and six?

Well those two months used the same Roman numbering system, which was also the basis

of September, October, November, and December.

The fifth month was Quintilis, which was based on the Latin adjective for fifth, which was

quintus, since this was the fifth month at the time.

And the sixth month was Sextilis, which was based on the Latin adjective for sixth, which

was sextus, since again that was the sixth month at the time.

But as we’ll see, the names of these two months were eventually replaced.

So today we just pick up the Latin numbering of the months with September.

So that was the original ten-month calendar.

Remember that the Romans basically went off the grid after December when winter kicked

in, and they just waited for the next vernal equinox in spring, and then they just started

counting all over again.

And also remember that these months were based strictly on the cycle of the moon, from one

new moon to the next new moon was a month, so it wasn’t really based on a set number

of days.

It was strictly a lunar calendar.

Well, at some point during the Etruscan period, the Romans filled in that winter period with

two additional months.

The first was named Januarius after the god Janus, which at this very early date was the

most important god in the early Roman culture.

Again, thanks to that French J sound, we know the god as Janus today, and the month as January.

Janus was actually much more important than Jupiter, or Jupiter, early on.

But as the Romans encountered the Greeks and they began to align their Roman gods with

the Greek gods, they came to realize that the Greek god Zeus was the preeminent god

in Greece, and the corresponding sky god in Rome, remember, was Jupiter.

So Jupiter got an upgrade thanks to his association with the Greek god Zeus.

But prior to that, Janus, or Janus, was the preeminent Roman god.

So that’s why this new winter month was named after him.

The second winter month was named Februarius, and this month was either named for the Roman

god Februs, or a feast of spiritual cleansing called Februa, which was held during this

same period of time each year.

Or perhaps it was named after both, but in either case, the name comes to us eventually

as February in modern English.

Now remember that these early Roman months were still based on lunar months, which required

constant revisions to be kept accurate.

This was a lunar calendar, which meant that each month changed when the moon cycles changed.

But that meant that the Romans needed to make constant adjustments by adding days or subtracting

days to keep these lunar months in sequence with the seasons.

Remember that the movement of the moon around the earth is not tied to the movement of the

earth around the sun.

So if you’re counting months based on moon cycles, you have to readjust to keep it in

line with the seasons, which are based on the sun.

Now this wasn’t a problem originally with that 10-month calendar when the Romans began

each season with the vernal equinox.

At that point, the calendar year was pretty much always in alignment with the seasons.

You just started each year on that date, the vernal equinox.

But now the Romans had filled in that winter gap with two new months.

They were no longer off the grid in winter and allowed to readjust when spring kicked


They were now on the grid all year, but they were using moon cycles to determine when the

month changed, not the equinox or solstice.

And they weren’t making regular adjustments to account for this discrepancy.

Occasionally they did make an adjustment when things were really out of sorts, and since

February was the last month of this early Roman calendar, which began in the spring,

this last month of February was used for adding days to resolve the discrepancies, which is

why we still use it today for adding the leap year every four years.

It’s also partially why it has an odd number of days of 28, while the other months have

30 or 31.

Now in 153 BC, the Romans decided to shake things up a bit, and they decided to use January

as the official beginning of the year, since that was when they installed their consuls.

So just as modern businesses can have a fiscal year, which is often different from the calendar

year, the Romans had an official period, which began with the installation of consuls,

and they had this separate calendar year, which began in basically modern day March

in the spring.

So they decided to readjust and just make January the first month since that corresponded

with the beginning of their official or political year.

But this meant that all of those months, which were named after Roman numbers, were now out

of phase.

The fifth month, Quintilis, was now the seventh month, and the sixth month, Sextilis, became

the eighth month, and so on.

And that’s how September, October, November, and December went from being months 7, 8,

9, and 10 to months 9, 10, 11, and 12.

Now let’s skip forward about a century to the time of Julius Caesar.

Remember that the Romans were not making the regular adjustments to the calendar that they

should have been making, and as a result, by the time of Caesar, the whole calendar

was completely out of phase with the seasons.

It was actually an entire season off, so everything was a mess.

So Caesar employed the Greek astronomer, Sicygianus, to come up with a plan to revamp the calendar.

And Sicygianus proposed that they completely abandon the idea of using lunar months, in

other words, the 29 and a half day moon cycles to measure time.

And they decided instead to just convert to a lunar year.

And the lunar year would be 365 days, with a leap year added every four years to account

for the extra six hours which accrued each year.

And keeping with tradition, the extra day would be added to February.

The lunar phases of the moon would cycle through the year, but they would no longer be tied

to any particular month.

And this is the calendar which Caesar adopted on January 1st, 45 BC, and which we still

know today as the Julian calendar.

But two more revisions were later made to the calendar.

In 44 BC, shortly after the assassination of Caesar, the Roman Senate renamed the seventh

month, Quintilis, as Julius, to honor Julius Caesar, who was born in that month.

And as you’ll recall, Julius became Julius, and it eventually passed into English as July.

And lastly, the eighth month, Sextilis, was renamed as Augustus, in favor of Augustus

Caesar, Julius Caesar’s successor and the first emperor of Rome.

Augustus also made its way into modern English as August.

Now a few other minor adjustments were made to the calendar by Pope Gregory VIII in the

1500s, thereby giving us the modern Gregorian calendar.

But most of what we know and recognize as the modern calendar came from the reforms

commissioned by Julius Caesar.

And since I’ve discussed the names of the months, let me conclude this episode on time

by looking at the days of the week.

Now I’ve repeatedly expressed the idea that modern English is, at its core, a blend of

Germanic Old English and Latin.

And the way we keep track of time is a perfect example of that blend.

Whereas the names of our months come from Latin, via French, after the Norman invasion,

the names of our days of the week are rooted in the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons.

But even so, the days were still not immune from Latin influences.

Four days are named after Germanic gods.

One is named after a Roman god, and the other two have origins in Latin but were modified

by the later Germanic Anglo-Saxons.

So let’s begin with the Greco-Roman astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy.

Now according to Ptolemy, there were seven planets which revolved around the earth.

And those planets were the sun, the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.

So the sun and the moon were considered planets at this time.

The idea also probably dates back to the Babylonians.

And during this pre-Christian era, the Romans adopted the seven-day week, and they decided

to name the seven days after these seven planets.

The first day was the sun’s day.

Since sun in Latin was sol, the Latin name for the day was solis deus.

The Germanic tribes took the name, but they substituted the Germanic words for sun and


And thus we get Sunday.

The same thing happened for the next day.

The next day was the moon’s day.

So in Latin, it was lunae deus.

Again, the Germanic tribes simply substituted the Germanic words for the Latin words, thereby

yielding moon’s day, or Monday.

Now these two translations were easy, because the Germanic tribes had their own words for

sun and moon.

But the other days were named for planets which were named after Roman gods.

So the Germanic tribes just substituted their own gods.

The next day was named for the planet and Roman god Mars.

We know it in modern French as Mardi, as in Mardi Gras, meaning Fat Tuesday.

Well the Germanic tribes substituted the Roman god Mars with the Germanic god Tyr, or as

the English Saxons knew him, Tew, and we thereby get Tuesday.

The following day was named for the planet and Roman god Mercury, and we know it in modern

French as Mercredi.

But the Germanic tribes substituted Mercury with the Germanic god Odin, or as the English

Saxons knew him, Woden.

So Mercury’s day became Woden’s day in Old English, and Wednesday today.

And Woden was one of the most important Germanic gods.

When a soldier died in battle, it was believed that they went to Woden’s Valhalla in the


And I’m going to talk more about Woden and these other Germanic gods when we get to the

Germanic tribes in an upcoming episode.

Now the next day of the week was named after the planet and Roman god Jupiter.

In modern French, it is Gerdé.

The Germanic tribes substituted Jupiter with their god Thor, long before he became a comic

book and movie hero, and the day became Thor’s day, hence now known as Thursday.

The next day of the week was named after the planet and Roman goddess Venus.

And being a female god, the Germanic tribes substituted her with Woden’s wife, Frigga,

thereby creating the modern Friday.

Frigga was closely associated with another female Germanic goddess, named Freyja.

And it appears that some of the Germanic tribes named the day after her instead.

In Icelandic, for example, Freyja may be the source of the name for their version of Friday.

Some historians believe that these two goddesses may have originally been a single goddess

at some very early point, and that there was a later evolution that divided them into two

separate goddesses.

And this might also account for some of the confusion as to which goddess was used as

the source for the name of Friday in the various Germanic languages.

And that leaves us with the final day, which the Romans named after the planet and god


Now, apparently the Germanic tribes didn’t have an equivalent god for Saturn, or at least

not one that they wanted to use to make this substitution, so they kept the Roman god Saturn

and we ended up with Saturn’s day, or as we know it today, Saturday.

The important point with respect to the names of the week is that these names were adopted

before the Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain, because names or versions of these names are

found throughout the Germanic languages.

So these names were adopted by the Germanic tribes while the Romans were still in control

of Gaul and before the Roman Empire began to collapse.

So these are very old Germanic words which predate Old English.

So I hope you found this discussion of time-related terms interesting.

Not only does it make for some interesting etymology, but it also illustrates how Modern

English is a blend of Germanic and Latin roots.

Now next time, I’m going to take a look at the period of the Roman Empire in Western


And I’ll explore the Roman invasion of Britain and the growing contact with the Celtic tribes

in Britain.

But I’ll also look at the growing Roman contact with the Germanic tribes in Northern and Eastern


And I’ll continue to look at Latin words which have found their way into Modern English.

And after that, I’m going to turn our attention to the Germanic tribes themselves.

I’ll explore the emergence of the Germanic tribes in Northern Europe, and the nature

of the original Germanic language, and the spread of those Germanic tribes into Western


And the story of the Germanic tribes will culminate with the migration of the Anglo-Saxons

into Britain in the 5th century AD.

And that’ll bring us to Volume 2 of this podcast series, which will be dedicated to Old English.

So until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English podcast.




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