Thursday, September 1, 2011

Septem-ber-ber-ber-ber

Having been born in Hungary, the last four month of the year were always people for me—with October playing spoiler. The reason for this is that ember in Hungarian is the word for human, not something left over and still glowing in the fireplace. This worked fine for Sept-ember, Nov-ember, and Dec-ember—but October made me doubt my childish logic. Yes. I was that sort of child.

The earliest Roman calendar had only ten months. Of these—you guessed it—the last four were our friends above. Count them septem, octo, novem, decem. That -ber ending that tails them in English and other languages derived from the Latin suffix equivalent to our -th, as in seventh. It was originally -bris. When the Romans wanted to be more formal, they said Septembris mensis, literally seventh month. Not too many bothered, therefore it became Septembris. The plural of that word for month is menses—also used in English for a recurring event. Online Etymology Dictionary cites etymologist T.G. Tucker saying that the first five months had been named after events in the agricultural cycle. The implication is that the Romans lost interest in the weather once the harvest was all in. Whatever. Just call the rest by number.

So that’s the answer to my recurring question, recurring since childhood but never answered before. I still think that the powers-that-be in Hungary should have renamed October Octoember a long, long time ago. But then this boy, having arrived in America, would have wondered why the English took the human out of October? Was it to signal the cold?

Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius (no Tarquins in sight yet in 700 BC) added January and February and stuck them in at the beginning. Suddenly there were twelve months! But renaming the old numbered ones so that they’d begin with Novembris and end in Duodecimbris—that was beyond the king’s powers. You can never trust the public sector to do the job right…

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