Do you ever wonder, “where do the month names come from?” Essentially, there are three sources: Greek and Roman deities, Roman rulers, and numbers. Let’s take a look at how they influenced each month, from January to December:
Month Names & Their Origins
- January is “the month of Janus” the Roman god of beginnings and endings. Janus presided over doors and gates—appropriate for the beginning of the year. Indeed, Janus was usually depicted with faces looking backward and forward, as is characteristic of a new year.
- February, “the month of cleansing,” is derived from februa, the name of a Roman purification festival held on the 15th of this month.
- March is named after the god of war and a planet: Mars. In ancient Rome, several festivals of Mars took place in March because that was the earliest month of the year when the weather was mild enough to start a war. At one time, March was the first month in the Roman calendar. The Romans changed the order of months several times between the founding of Rome and the fall of the Roman Empire.
- April is from the Latin Aprillis, which is a derivative of the Latin base apero-, meaning “second.” April was named as such because of the tweaking of the ancient Roman calendar, where April was the second month.
- May springs from the Greek goddess Maia, daughter of Atlas and mother of Hermes. She was a nurturer and an earth goddess, which certainly explains her connection with this springtime month, when flowers and crops burst forth.
- June descends from Juno, wife of Jupiter, and the Roman ancient goddess of marriage and childbirth.
- July was named in honor of Julius Caesar right after his assassination in 44 B.C., with July being the month of his birth. July is the first month in the calendar that bears the name of a real person, rather than a deity.
- August represents another Roman ruler having been enshrined. In 8 B.C., the month Sextilis (“sixth”) was renamed after Augustus, nephew of Julius Caesar and the first emperor of Rome. The emperor’s name came from the Latin augustus, which gave rise to the adjective “august,” meaning “respected and impressive.”
- September, from the Latin septem (“seven”), seems as if it should be the seventh month of the year.
- The names for October (octo), November (novem), and December (decem) suggest that they would be the eighth, ninth, and tenth months. And they once were, when the Roman lunar calendar started the year in March at harvest time. But all that changed in 46 B.C., when January became the first month of the new Julian calendar, making September through December the ninth–twelfth months of the year.
Richard Lederer is a writer, speaker, and teacher best known for his books on word play and the English language and is a regular contributor to the Farmers' Almanac. You can visit his web site at Verbivore.