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Issue 58   

October 25, 1999
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Just the other day someone asked us why October, the tenth month, sounds as if it should be the eighth (in Latin octus means "eight").  Well, the answer is quite simple but, while we're at it, we might as well tackle all twelve of them.  Months, that is.

The ancient Romans had gods for just about everything, they even had a goddess of sewers (her name was Mephita).  So it is not surprising that they also had a god of doorways.  His name was Janus andCoin depicting Janus, naturally, he possessed two faces so that he could watch both sides of an entrance at once.  Correspondingly, his festival was celebrated at the beginning of the year, a time when one looks back on the old year and forward to the new one. His name thus came to be associated with the first month of the year, and in Latin it was Januarius mensis "month of Janus".  English took it as Genever sometime before 1300, from French Genever, which came from the Latin.  By 1391 the word in English was Januarie.  Incidentally, Janus is also the origin of our word janitor, which originally meant a doorkeeper.

February entered English in the 13th century, coming from Old French feverier, which itself came from the Latin februarius.  This derived from februum, a word borrowed by Latin from an ancient people of Italy, the Sabines and there is even an obscure English word februation which means "an act of ritual cleansing".  Februa was what the Romans called their festival of purification which they held in mid-February.  The English form in 1200 was feoverrer, and by 1225 it was feoverel.  English revised its word to more closely resemble the Latin around 1373 and came up with februare. We don't know who came up with Feb-you-arry, though.  (In how many other English words is an r pronounced as a y?)  Welsh also takes the name of this month from Latin but spells it chwefrawl.  (Go figure.)

The Latin god of war, Mars, gives March its name. It comes via Old French marz, which came from Latin Martius mensis "month of Mars".  It entered English around 1200.

April is the month of opening buds and takes its name from the Latin verb apere, "to open".  The Latin form was Aprilis which became Avrill in Old French.  In the 1200s the English form was Averil but around 1375 English re-borrowed the more Latin form, April.  In some countries April was considered the first month of the year and the tradition of April-fool is a relic of new-year festivities.

The month of May is the month of the Roman goddess Maia. The name Maia may be from the same source as Latin magnus "large", perhaps denoting "growth" or "increase". The Latin name of the month was Maius.  English acquired the word via Old French mai in the 12th century.

June, which first entered English in the 11th century as Junius, was borrowed from late Latin Junius, a variant of Junonius, which was what the Romans called the month, after Juno, goddess of women and marriage.

July is, simply, named after Gaius Julius Caesar, the Roman autocrat who was born in that month.  Despite naming a month after himself, he actually did a lot of good work in reforming the Roman calendar.  And, just in case you think that staking a claim to a whole month was a pretty egotistical act, Julius also declared himself to be a god and erected temples to himself. 

Augustus CaesarOnce you start something like that, it can easily get out of hand (fortunately, there are only so many months) and Augustus Caesar, Julius' adopted nephew, followed suit by naming August after himself.  Just like uncle Jules, Augustus declared himself to be a god, too.  But he only demanded worship from the inhabitants of the provinces; Roman citizens were exempt. (Probably due to their profound cynicism in these matters.)

Those of our readers who are gardeners might be interested to learn that the Old English name for August was Weodmonath "the month of weeds".

So, due to Julius and Augustus inserting their own, private months into the calendar, the following months had to take a couple of steps backward. September, (from Latin septem, "seven") became the ninth month, October, (from Latin octo, "eight") became the tenth month, November, (from Latin novem, "nine") became the eleventh month, and December, (from Latin decem, "ten") became the twelfth month.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Eijan:  Updated January 2006

Recently the phrase "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea" came up and we were looking for where it originated.

The devil referred to in this phrase is actually, according to the OED, "The seam which margins the waterways on a ship’s hull" (Smyth Sailor’s Word-bk.); or "a seam between the garboard-strake and the keel" (Funk and Wagnall).  Christine Ammer (in Have a Nice Day-No Problem, A dictionary of clichés) says that it is the "seam around a ship's hull near the waterline".  It was dangerous work caulking this seam, especially because, as the vessel tossed, the seam was alternately above and below the water’s surface.  The task of caulking this seam was known as "paying the devil" and, presumably, the unlucky seaman charged with this job had to do so hanging by a rope thrown over the side of the ship.  One stiff swell might knock him into the water.  Anyone caught in such a position was certainly at risk of injury or death.  However, that is not the ultimate origin of pay in this sense.  Instead, it derives from Latin picare "to (apply) tar", from Lastin pix or picem "pitch, tar".  So to pay the devil is, quite literally, to apply tar to the seam on a ship which is known as the devil.  That phrase may have gained popularity among sailors because the phrase the devil to pay with the meaning, "You'll have serious consequences if you do that" already existed, arising in the late 17th or early 18th century   Yes, it was that sense that came first.  The nautical one followed, probably as a humorous use of the existing phrase.

The meaning of this phraseSting (Gordon Sumner) is similar to that of caught between Scylla and Charybdis.  This refers to two marine monsters of the ancient Mediterranean.  As Homer relates, Odysseus had to sail through a narrow strait with the monster Scylla (in the shape of a rock) on one side and Charybdis (in the form of a deadly whirlpool) on the other.  In order to get past one, he had to face the other.  

Homer's plot element quickly came to be used as a metaphor by other ancient writers and is still used today; one recent example is in singer/songwriter Gordon (Sting) Sumner's  song "Wrapped Around Your Finger":  "You consider me the young apprentice/Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis..."

From Gary Carbon:

What is the origin of the phrase made from scratch?  You used this phrase in your bio as in "this web site was made from scratch".  I usually think of this phrase in regards to baking, as in making biscuits from scratch.  The only thing I can think of is making biscuits from chicken scratch, i.e. cracked corn.

This use of scratch derives from a line or mark drawn or scratched into the ground to indicate a boundary or starting-point in sports, especially cricket and boxing.  That meaning of scratch goes back to the late 18th century.  From there it came to apply specifically to the starting point, in a handicap, of a competitor who received no odds: "Mr. Tom Sabin, of the Coventry Bicycle Club, has won, during last week, Cake mix -- why "made from scratch" means what it does today. three races from scratch." (Bicycle Journal, August 18, 1878).  It was later applied figuratively with the meaning "from nothing", and it was used thus by James Joyce in Ulysses (1922): "A poor foreign immigrant who started scratch as a stowaway and is now trying to turn an honest penny."  Thereafter it was taking up in cooking once boxed mixes and prepared foods became widely available.  Today it is a badge of honor to be able to say one made a culinary delight from scratch.

From Bea Willwerth:

What is the origin of sky?

You might have guessed that this is a very old word in English, but it actually dates back only to the early Middle Ages.  Additionally, you might be surprised to learn that, etymologically, this word means "covered".  It derives from the Indo-European root (s)keu- "to cover, conceal", which gave several of the Germanic languages words for "shadow" and "cloud".  English did not adopt the word, however, until the 12th or 13th century; prior to that heaven (Old English heofon) was the English word for "sky".  In fact, sky continued to be used to refer to clouds through the middle of the 16th century.Cirrus clouds in the sky.

Old Norse ský "cloud", Old Saxon skio "shade, shadow", and Old English scuwa "shade, shadow" all derive from the Indo-European root.  It is where we get another English word scug "shelter (as that afforded by a rock or bush)", which originally meant "shade".  There is also an obsolete English word skew "sky" which is thought to be from the same source.

By the way, heaven is believed by some to derive from the Indo-European root ak- "sharp", referring to the belief that the sky was made of stone. The OED, however, claims that the underlying etymology of the word is not known.

From Kate Dalton:

How did the accounting term dunning as in dunning letter originate?  Was it named after someone?  I was in an accounts receivable class last week and no one knew the answer.  I swore I would find out.

If you "swore" to find out, you must have a lot of faith in us.  We won't let you down.  The word dun means "to make repeated and insistent demands for payment" and it dates back to the early 17th century, at least.  It is thought to be an alteration of the Old English verb din "to sound, ring" and/or the noun din "a loud noise which stuns or distresses the ear".  You can probably see the sense here:  one who makes repeated demands for payment is likened to making a din, at least in the ears of the debtor.  Din comes from the Indo-European root dhwen- "to make noise".

There is the suggestion that dun may derive from someone's name.  Consider the following: 

"The word Dun...owes its birth to one Joe Dun, a famous Bailif of the Town of Lincoln...It became a Proverb...when a man refused to pay his Debts, Why don’t you Dun him? That is why don’t you send Dun to arrest him?... It is now as old as since the days of King Henry the Seventh" (1708).

However, there is no evidence to support this assertion.

From JewelsERD:

I would like to know the origin of the word waive.

Etymologically, this word means "to make [something] a waif, to abandon".  In Middle English it was weyve, and it came from Anglo-French weyve, which derived from Old French gaiver, "abandon".  Its first sense in English (late 13th century) was "to outlaw", but by the early 14th century it meant "to relinquish, to abandon".  The legal application "to relinquish a right, claim, or contention by express declaration or intentional act" arose in the 15th century, and that usage influenced a non-legal meaning of "refrain from enforcing a rule" which developed in the mid-17th century.

Waif is thought to come from a Scandinavian source, as there is an Old Norse word veif "something flapping or waving".  In English law of the Middle Ages, the word waif applied to any found property which, if unclaimed, went to the owner of the land on which it was found, e.g. something washed up on shore or a stray animal.  The word came to be applied to a homeless or neglected person, and then an orphaned or neglected child, in the late 18th century.  The Indo-European root of waif and waive is weip- "to turn, vacillate, or tremble".

From Brian Duckworth:

What is the origin of the phrase pardon my French?

This phrase, in which French refers to "bad language", is employed when the speaker feels compelled to use an obscenity despite having listeners who might be offended.  It's a late 19th century euphemism which first appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1895.

It is thought that the term French is employed in this sense as it already had a history of association with things considered vulgar.  As far back as the early 16th century, French pox and the French disease were synonyms for genital herpes, and French-sick was another term for syphillis.  The OED also equates the adjective French with "spiciness", as in French letter for "condom", French kiss (1923) and French (i. e. "sexually explicit") novels (from 1749).

English seems to have habit of  using words of nationality in a negative manner: see Mexican standoff for more examples.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

wherein Malcolm Tent bewails the misuse of


More and more we hear this word being used as if it means enormousness.  "The enormity of the situation" does not refer to the size but to the "extreme or monstrous wickedness" of the situation.  It simply has nothing to do with the size of anything!  Do not tell me that the "enormity of the Astrodome is amazing", because I do not think the Astrodome is wicked!  However, do tell me that the "enormity of the conflict in Kosovo is appalling", for it is. 

By the way, the word comes from enorm, which derives from Latin enormis, formed from e- "out" + norma "mason's square" or "pattern", and meaning etymologically "outside the ordinary".  In fact, that was the same meaning of the related word enormous.  Only some time after that word's entry into English did size come into the picture.  Latin norma also gave English norm and normal, both referring to anything that is "ordinary" or "on the square".

All of these words have as their Indo-European root gno-, source also of English know, ken, canny and agnostic, along with Greek gnosis.

Sez You...

From Jackie:

Thanks for doing your query this week on my previous word, peccadillo. While I was reading it I noticed you had also answered a query on the word bizarre.  In my English class we were studying old English and there was some talk of bizarre being related to the Celtic warriors called berserkers who "stripped  naked and painted their bodies except their long hair on their face and head and ate mind altering plants" before going into battle. This also relates to going beserk I am sure.

The information you obtained in your English class regarding berserk/berserker is not exactly correct.  Berserkers were actually Norse warriors, originally.  The Celtic warriors who fought naked and painted their bodies with a dye made from the woad plant (Isatis tinctoria) were the ancient Britons (and not the Scots, as depicted in Braveheart). Then there were the Picts, who tattooed their entire bodies and whose name comes from the same source as English picture, Latin pictura "painting".

The word berserk is thought to mean "bear sark", a sark being a "shirt", and sark is still a word in the Scandinavian languages for "shirt".  It is believed to refer to the cloak of bear skin which was the only garment worn by berserkers in battle.  The battle-frenzy of the berserkers resembles that described of certain Celtic heroes in that they were as dangerous to their own side as to their enemy.  As for mind-altering drugs, there is no record of the Celts using such, but some historians have suggested that berserkers may have eaten the fly-agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria).

Speaking of skimpy clothing, the word sark entered Scottish English and occurs in Robert Burns' poem Tam O'Shanter.  Tam espies a beautiful young witch, dancing in the woods wearing only a cutty sark (a "short shirt").  According to the poem, she spotted Tam who rode off on his horse.  Tam only just escaped by galloping across a stream.  Apparently (at least according to Scottish folklore) witches can't cross running water. The witch did, however, manage to hang onto the horse's tail.  In the days of the tea clippers a sailing ship called The Cutty Sark was the fastest vessel in the world.  Its figurehead was the witch of Burns' poem, holding a horse's tail.  Although the figurehead was carved out of wood, the horse's tail was real and was replaced after each voyage.

From Kevin Robinson:

I hope your internet service provider wrote the note that said "DUE TO UNFORESEEN FACTORS, ISSUE 57 WILL BE PUBLISHED ON OCTOBER 19." If either of you wrote it, you should be lashed with strings of dangling participles and misplaced modifiers. I may be wrong, but the last time I checked, due to when used in this sense literally meant "attributable to," rather than "as a result of" or "because of." Due to is typically used in a construction with "to be": the storms were due to an upper atmospheric disturbance. 

Due to as employed on our page last week (as a prepositional phrase) has been in use since the 14th century. Only proscriptivists object to it being used in that manner, claiming that it should be used only as an adjective. Despite their protestations, the prepositional usage is quite acceptable and correct.

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