January - the name comes from the Roman god Janus (Ianus in Latin), the two-faced
god, who foresaw the comings and goings from houses, but also saw the
departure of the old year and entry of the new. The Latin word for ‘door’
‘ianua’ is related to the name ‘Ianus’. January is, therefore, effectively the ‘door’ that opens the year.
February - February was the ‘mensis februarius’ (month of purification). Rites were
held to purify before the beginning of Spring. It is also possibly related to Latin ‘febris’, which means ‘fever’.
March - the month of Mars, ‘Martiae’ (and also the month where Julius Caesar died,
hence the warning ‘cave Idus Martiae’). But why was it the month of Mars?
Traditionally, this was the month when military campaigning resumed. It was also the first month in the Roman calendar until possibly the time of king Numa, or the Decemvirs of 450 BC.
April - the origin of the name ‘April’ is uncertain and disputed. The favoured
explanation is that it derives from the Roman verb ‘aperire’, ‘to open’, as
April represented the ‘opening’ of Spring. The other is that it is related to
the Etruscan appropriation of the Greek ‘Aphrodite’, the Etruscan being
‘Apru’. As other month names are derived from those of gods or goddesses,
this is very plausible, too. I have another, slightly strange theory. The Latin
word for ‘wild boar’ is ‘aper, apris’). Was there a connection to the boar-
hunting or breeding season? Or is that just a wild theory and me being a
total BORE! (Sorry!). The explanation that it is ‘Aphrodite’s month’ on
balance, seems the most likely.
May - May comes from Maia, the Roman earth and fertility goddess. She was
linked to the Greek Maia, who was Hermes’ mother. May was, however, not
the fifth month of the Roman calendar. It was the third. The Romans
originally had a month called ‘Quintilis’, meaning ‘fifth’, connected to the
Latin word ‘quinque’ (five) and ‘quintus’ (fifth). This was, however, before January and February were added as intercalary months (no, not inter-calorie, they weren’t about dieting). The English form ‘May’ has been filtered via French, ‘mai’.
June - the month of Juno, wife and sister of Jupiter, and goddess of marriage and
childbirth. Ovid’s charming and all-too-often forgotten poem, the Fasti,
which details the first six months of the Roman calendar and its significant
festivals, rites, and practices, gives Juno as the first explanation of the name
of the month, but says there are others. One, which doesn’t sound very
likely to me, is that the name comes from ‘iunctus’ (joined, or united),
marking the uniting of the Sabines and Romans.
July - no doubt about this month’s name, it comes from Julius Caesar. He did not
actually ‘add’ (as is sometimes asserted) the month to the calendar, he
renamed ‘Quintilis’, the original fifth month of the year and his own birth
month, after his good self.
August - no doubt about the name of this one either. The original sixth month,
Sextilis, which misleadingly became the eighth, following the advent (pun
intended) of January and February. The senate renamed it after Augustus, princeps of Rome (note, I don’t use ‘emperor’, I promise to explain this in another article) in 8 BC. It would be very unlikely that Augustus did not have a hand in orchestrating this – it followed the month named after this adopted father, Julius Caesar, and it was also the month of his final defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, on the first of the month at Alexandria in 30 BCE (yes, contrary to what you may have heard, Actium was not the final ‘word’, so to speak, against the famous duo, although it was pretty clear they’d ‘had it’ after Actium).
September - Our ninth month of the year, was originally the seventh month as its name
suggests (septem is the Latin for seven). The insertion of January and
February knocked the calendar out of sync in terms of the names of the final
four months. French (Septembre), Spanish (Setiembre), and Italian
(Settembre) also come from the Latin.
October - originally the eighth month of the year, from the Latin ‘octo’.
November - the Latin for nine is ‘novem’, and it was originally the ninth month of the
December - obviously, this used to be the tenth month of the year, the Latin for ten is
Sorry, these last four are a little on the dull side!
Finally, the suffix ‘-ber’ comes from the Latin adjectival suffix ‘-bris’.