We use them almost every day — but have you ever wondered where the names of the months come from and what they mean?
What started off as a small curosity for me ended up as a fully-fledged blog post. I figure months have something to do with the way we measure things, so here we are! I started off looking at the etymology of the months and thought this would be a short post, but then got curious about what they mean in Irish, then noticed some are quite similar in Scot’s Gaelic and ended up going the whole hog and throwing in Manx and Welsh too for good measure.
The calendar we know and love today (maybe “love” is a bit much…) originates, as do many things, from Roman times. The original Roman calendar had ten months, starting at Mensis Martius (March) and ending at Mensis December. There was still a period of sixty-ish days between the end of the year and start of the next, it just wasn’t marked in the calendar. Eventually the calendar was reformed and two more months were added to the end of the year. These were subsequently moved to the start of the year a few centuries later (what we now call January and February), and with a few other tweaks we end up with the calendar we use today.
So, what do they all mean? Let’s find out, month by month.
“January” comes from the ancient Roman month Mensis Iānuārius. It refers to either the god Janus (Mensis Iānuārius means “The month of Janus”) or to the Latin word iānua, which roughly means “door” or “passage”. Janus is the god of beginnings, endings, doorways and passages. He is depicted as having two faces, looking to the future and the past at the same time. This is quite fitting for the month of January as it is the beginning of a new year — however, January was originally inserted as the second last month of the reformed Roman calendar, not the first. It was moved to the first month a few centuries later.
In Irish it is called Eanáir, and in Welsh it is Ionawr, which are both a direct borrowing from Iānuārius.
In Scot’s Gaelic it is called Am Faoilleach, which means “wolf month”, in reference to the time of year the wolves start coming down the mountains to scavenge.
In Manx Gaelic it is Jerrey Geuree, which means “end of winter”. It is traditional in Gaelic countries for winter to run from November to January.
February was originally the last month of the year when it was added to the Roman calendar. Its name comes from the latin term februum, which means “purification”. This is in reference to the purification ritual that happened in the city of Rome in February to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility (probably due to it being at the end of the year).
In Irish, it is called Feabhra, and in Welsh it is Chwefror, which are both direct borrowings of the same Latin term februum.
In Scots Gaelic it is called An Gearran, which referrs to the gelding or castration of cattle that took place in the month.
In Manx Gaelic it is called Toshiaght Arree, which means “the origins of spring”.
March — or Mensis Martius in Latin — is named after Mars, the Roman god of war. It’s a month that not only marked the beginning of the year (if you go back far enough) but also marked the return to active farming, military engagements and sailing.
The Irish, Scottish and Welsh went for direct borrowings from the Latin Martius with Márta, Am Màrt and Mawrth respectively.
The Manx went for something a little different, where it is called Mean Arree, which means “middle of spring”.
Known as Mensis Aprilis in Latin, April is believed to be derived from either the verb aperire — meaning “to open” — or the god Venus, whose Greek name is Aphros.
In Irish it is called Aibreán, which is a borrowing from Aprilis, as is the Welsh word Ebrill.
In Scot’s Gaelic it is called An Giblean, which means “Pudding Month” — a reference to the feasting that would traditionally happen in that month, where the leftovers were used to make puddings.
In Manx Gaelic it is called Jerrey Arree, which means “the end of spring”.
It is beleived that May (from the Latin Mensis Maius) is named for the Greek godess Maia, who the Romans saw as the embodiment of growth. Maius is also an adjective that means “greater” or “larger”, the plural of which is maiores — which can be used to refer to elders or ancestors. Therefore, it is also believed that Mensis Maius may be named in honour of elder people and ancestors.
In Irish (Bealtaine) and Manx (Boaldyn) it is named after the Gaelic festival Beltane, which happens on the 1st of May each year (many other countries also have “May day” festivals on this day). It’s a festival that celebrates the beginning of summer and the sending of the cattle out to pasture, which involved lighting bonfires and feasting! It almost completely died out in the mid 20th century but has seen some revival in recent years.
In Scot’s Gaelic it is An Cèitean, which is somehow a synonym of Màigh — derived from Maius. Mai in Welsh is also derived from the Latin word.
There are quite a few etymologies for June, but the most likely is that Iunius (its Latin name) refers to “youth” or “young people”. It is also suggested that it is named for Juno, the Roman god of love and marriage. It is believed that Juno’s name may have the same root meaning as Iunius (“youth”) so there may be a connection.
The Irish, Manx and Welsh words — Meitheamh, Mean Souree and Mehefin respectively — all roughly mean “midsummer” or “middle of summer”. In Irish, it also means “middle month”.
Following from the Latin origins, the Scots call it An t-Ogmhìos which roughly means “the month of the young”.
Originally named Quintillis — Latin for fifth — this month was later renamed to July in honour of Julius Caesar, shortly after his assassination in 44 BC. The seventh month was chosen as this was his birth month.
In Irish, it is called Iúil (pronounced oo-ill), which literally means Julius (seems us Irish have a liking for ol’ Julius too).
In Scot’s gaelic it is called An t-Luchar, which simply means “warm month”.
In Manx it is Jerrey Souree, and in Welsh it is Gorffennaf, both of which mean “end of summer”.
August was originally Sextillis in the early Roman calendar, as it was the sixth month. When the two extra months were added, Sextillis kept its name despite now being the eighth month. In 8 BC, Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of the Roman Empire — being the modest chap that he was — decided to rename Sextillis to August in honour of himself, and so joining the month-naming ranks of his great-uncle Julius. Despite being born in September, he chose Sextillis because it was the month of several with his greatest victories, including the defeat and suicide of Antony and Cleopatra.
In Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx Gaelic, the month is named after the Gaelic festival Lughnasadh (pronounced loon-ah-sa). In Modern Irish it is now spelled Lúnasa, in Scottish Gaelic it’s Lùnastal, and in Manx it’s Luanisty. The festival marks the start of the harvest season and is named after the god Lugh (Lughnasadh is a combination of Lugh and násad — an assembly). Lugh is an important god in Irish mythology and is said to have started the festival.
The Welsh stuck with honouring the great Agustus and call it Awst.
September comes from the Latin month Mensis September, which means “seventh month” (Septem is the Latin for “seven”). It became the ninth month after the calendar reform, and had one day added (previously 29), but retained its name.
In Irish it is called Meán Fómhair, or “middle of the harvest”, and is quite similar in Manx Gaelic: “Mean Fouyir”. The Welsh word Medi is along the same lines, it means “reaping” — in reference to the harvest.
In Scots Gaelic it is An t-Sultain, which is derived from the word sult — meaning “fat” or “fatness”. This seems to be in reference to the fattening of the cattle (and perhaps humans…) in preperation for the winter (or slaughter) ahead.
Mensis October means “eighth month” in Latin (you may be starting to see a pattern emerging here…) and was of course the eighth month of 10 in the original Roman calendar. It has always had 31 days.
In Irish it is called Deireadh Fómhair (pronounced der-eh four), and in Manx Jerrey Fouyir, both meaning “end of the harvest”.
In Scots Gaelic it is “An Dàmhair”, which refers to the rutting season (mating season for deer).
The Welsh word is a little confusing — Hydref — which means “autumn”. The same word is used for season of autumn.
No prizes for guessing the origins of the word “November”… Yes novem means nine! It had 29 days prior to the calendar reform.
In Irish, Scot’s Gaelic and Manx it is called Samhain (sow wawn), Samhainnor and Sauin respectively, which are all named after the two day Gaelic festival that happened at the start of the month to mark the end of the harvest, the beginning of winter and the start of a new year. The first of the two festival days was on the 31st of October, this night was referred to as Oíche Shamhna (Irish), Oidhche Shamhna (Scots Gaelic) or Oie Houney (Manx), all of which mean “Samhain night”. It is believed this night is the origin of Halloween.
In Welsh it is Tachwedd, which means “slaughtering”, referring to the slaughtering of animals for the winter.
You get the picture, decem means 10, let’s move on…
In Irish it is called Nollaig and in Manx it is Mee ny Nollick, which is derived from the Latin natalicia, which means birthday — specifically referring to the birth of Jesus.
In Scots Gaelic it is Dùbhlachd, which is derived from dubh (“dark” or “black”).
The Welsh word is Rhagfyr, which means “foreshortening”, referring to the very short days.
Sources of Information
- August — Wikipedia
- Sextilis — Wikipedia
- Augustus — Wikipedia
- AUGUSTUS — History
- September — Wikipedia
- September (Roman month) — Wikipedia
- October — Wikipedia
- October (Roman month) — Wikipedia
- The Gaelic Calendar — Celtic Life
- Lughnasadh — Wikipedia
- Gaelic Calendar — Wikipedia
- Roman Calendar — Wikipedia
- November (Roman month) — Wikipedia
- November — Wikipedia
- Samhain — Wikipedia
- December (Roman month) — Wikipedia
- December — Wikipedia
- Basic Scottish Gaelic — SaveGaelic.org
- July — Wikipedia
- Quintilis — Wikipedia
- Julius Caesar — Wikipedia
- Months and time — Manx Language Network
- February — Wikipedia
- Februarius — Wikipedia
- January — Wikipedia
- Ianuarius — Wikipedia
- Lupercalia — Wikipedia
- Ionawr — Wiktionary
- Useful Welsh Words — Months of the Year
- Chwefror — Wiktionary
- March — Wikipedia
- Martius (month) — Wikipedia
- May — Wikipedia
- Maius — Wikipedia
- Maia — Wikipedia
- Beltane — Wikipedia