Even as a young boy I used to enjoy word games and studying vocabulary roots and word origins. Simple things, like ‘octo.’ In Greek and Latin it is the number ‘eight.’ In Spanish it’s spelled ‘ocho.’ So, octo means eight, as in an octopus has eight arms, an octagon has eight sides and eight angles, and an octogenarian is in his eighties. Therefore, October must be the name of the eighth month of the year. Right? No, not today. Here’s why. In the beginning, the legendary Romulus, the first Roman king and Remus’ twin brother, developed a calendar of 10 orderly months and a lot of left-over days at year end in the dead of winter. Its lack of precision made it impossible for Romans to achieve the perfection they obsessively craved in all things. This original 10-month Roman calendar began with ‘Martius’ (what we call March), named for Mars, the god of war. Then came ‘Aprilis’ (April), ‘Maius’ (May), and then ‘Iunius’ (later spelled Junius, our June), all revered Roman deities or festivities. The following months were just named for the Latin number of the month: the fifth ‘Quintilis,’ the sixth ‘Sextilius,’ the seventh ‘September,’ the eighth ‘October,’ the ninth ‘November,’ and the tenth ‘December.’ That means, at one time in ancient Rome, October really was the eighth month. But in 690 B.C., the second Roman king Numa Pompilius added an eleventh month to the original Roman calendar, putting it in the left-over season following December. He named it ‘Februarius’ for the Festival of Februa, a time of purification and preparation for the coming of spring. Later, Pompilius created a final twelfth month, named it ‘Ianuarius’ (later spelled Januarius) for Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, and used up the remaining left-over days. He placed it in front of Februarius, making February the last month. The calendar now had 12 months, beginning with March and ending in February, with all their days in their proper places. You may ask: why didn’t the Romans use the letter ‘J’? For phonetic reasons, the letters, or symbols, ‘J’, ‘U’ and ‘W’ were added to our vocabulary during the Middle Ages, about 500 to 1500 A.D. in Europe. The Latin language used an ‘I’ where we use a ‘J’ today and a ‘V’ where we use a ‘U.’ The ‘W’ consonant didn’t exist in Latin, which, of course, was the language of the Romans.
Powerful Roman church leaders would recalculate and manipulate the calendar for political purposes over the next 600 years, changing or extending a year when it helped their cronies. Julius Caesar stopped that practice by realigning the calendar (the Julian calendar) to the sun, thereby preventing human intervention. In 44 B.C., the year of the assassination of the popular Roman dictator, the month of Quintilis was renamed ‘Iulius’ in his honor. Just think; without a ‘J’ the world never knew Caesar as Julius, but Iulius. Then, in 8 B.C., the emperor Augustus Caesar had the month of Sextilius renamed ‘August’ to honor himself for his subjugation of the great Egyptian empire. Later Roman emperors often changed the names of the months to their ridiculous imperial titles, but thankfully none survived. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII adjusted the calendar to start the year on January 1st because Janus was the ancient god of beginnings. Most western countries soon accepted this new ‘Gregorian calendar,’ but it wasn’t until 1752 that Britain, and therefore its American colonies, adopted it. Their problem was they did not want to credit or recognize the authority of the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church. Did the British passage of the Calendar Act of 1750 greatly affect the American colonists? Not much, the beginning of the new legal year of 1752 was changed from March 25th to January 1st, and September was shortened by 11 days in that year to get most (but not all) countries in sync. The change accidently created the Twelve Days of Christmas, but Christmas was so inconsequential in America that Congress didn’t even take the day off to celebrate it after the Revolutionary War. They held their first session of Congress on Christmas Day of 1789; it was just another workday. Christmas was established as a Federal holiday in 1870.
Lewis Smith lives in Thomson. Contact him at email@example.com.