How Were The Months Named?

(Last Updated On: September 11, 2022)

Most of us probably start picking up at least bits and pieces of Latin as we go through schooling. Nothing that will help anyone be conversational (it’s okay, nobody speaks it), but you might have picked up on some prefixes, like “tri-” for three or “octo-” for eight. That’s where the months come in because if you haven’t noticed, they lie if you use the prefixes. “Septem-” is the Latin prefix for “seven,” but the month September is the 9th month. October might imply it’s the 8th month, but it’s actually month number 10. So what’s up with that? How were the months named?

Why Don’t the Numbers Line Up?

The Gregorian calendar we’re complaining about is rooted in the Roman calendar (thanks to a guy named Romulus), but more specifically a revised version of it. This revised version was proposed by good old Julius Caesar in 46 BC, which is also called the Julian Calendar.

We can trace our mis-numbered months back to the Roman calendar, though. As far as months go, the Roman calendar was pretty similar to the modern Gregorian one–except the Roman calendar is missing two months. Specifically, the Roman calendar doesn’t have January or February–but the remaining 10 months are the same. As a result, the Roman months cycle like this (we also put their original Latin names there too):

  1. March | Mensis Martius
  2. April | Mensis Aprilis
  3. May | Mensis Maius
  4. June | Mensis Iunius
  5. July | Mensis Quintilis
  6. August | Mensis Sextilis
  7. September | Mensis September
  8. October | Mensis October
  9. November | Mensis November
  10. December | Mensis December

Looking at the months up like that, you can tell they line up. March through June are named after Roman deities, while everything from July onwards is just a number. 

The Roman Republic would use a 12 month calendar, following Greek calendars. January (Mensis Ianuarius) and February (Mensis Februarius) were added to round out winter, with a “leap month” after February every two years that lasted only a couple days. This intercalary month was called Mercedonius (“Work Month” in Latin) and was occasionally used for political reasons–also known as it messed up calendars because it wasn’t always used properly. 

That brings us to the Julian calendar, which got rid of Mercedonius and gave February 28 days normally and 29 on a leap year. 

The Names of Each Month

January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of transitions.

February is a little more unique, taking its name not from a deity, but rather Roman rituals. It’s named after Februa, a festival celebrated on February 15th in Ancient Rome. In English the name roughly means “purification”, and it was mostly about preparing for the incoming spring. The festivities included spelt and salt for home cleaning and young men running around naked save for some goat-skin capes. The idea was to promote fertility, or something. 

March, April, May, and June are quite straightforward if a little weird when you think about it. March is named after Mars, the Roman God of War (Ares if you’re Greek). 

April is named after Aphrodite, the Greek God of Love or Beauty. If you’re Roman, she’s Venus. See why it might be a little weird? Anyway, Aphrodite is also Ares’ wife

May is said to take its name from Maia, a Greek Nymph of the Pleiades who gave birth to Hermes. To the Romans, Maia was a symbol of growth. 

June is named for Juno, the Roman Goddess of Marriage and Childbirth. She’s also known as the Queen of the Gods; if you’re Greek she’s Hera. Juno adopted more warlike aspects when she made her way to Rome, much of her symbology was assimilated from the Greek Goddess Athena.

July through December were named after numbers, though July and August were renamed in 44 and 8 BC respectively. July was named in honor of Julius Caesar, as he was born in what would be renamed to July. August is named for Augustus Caesar, the first Roman Emperor. 


See if you know months by American holiday here.

Comments

comments

About Kyler 728 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.