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Issue 104   

October 10, 2000
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spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes) Spotlight on...

the days of the week

Seldom does a week go by without a request for the origin of Tuesday or Friday or some other day of the week.  Why anyone would be consumed with curiosity about one day of the week and not the rest, we can't imagine.  Well, in order to explain the days of the week, we should first explain the week itself.  We must warn you that this gets quite complicated so please get comfy before we start.  Slower readers might want to make themselves a sandwich.

Ready?  OK, but don't say you weren't warned.

There are some things in our lives that have no logical reason but they are just so familiar that we accept them without question.  Like why there are 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week.  We know why there 365 (or so) days in a year - that's approximately the time it takes our planet to orbit its sun.  Similarly, months are (or were, originally) the time taken for the moon to go through all its phases but there is no astronomical phenomenon which corresponds to a week.  The Romans got along for centuries without the concept of a week.  It arrived sometime in the first century along with the eastern cult of Mithras and gradually took root.  The Romans were never really comfortable with the week, though, and didn't even have a good word for it.  Sometimes they called it hebdomas or "the seven [days]" (from Greek hepta, "seven") and sometimes it was septimanus "the sevenfold" (from Latin septa, "seven").  The French semaine and Spanish semana are derived from septimanus.

When the Teutonic races of northern Europe learned about the seven-day cycle they used one of their own words for it - wikon.  Now, up to this point they needed a word meaning "a group of seven consecutive days" about as much as we need a specific term for "thirteen elderly badgers", so wikon must have meant something else previously.  What this previous meaning might have been is open to conjecture but it is believed to be connected with change or movement.  The Old Norse vkja meaning "to turn, move" and Old High German wehsal  "change" (hence modern German wechsel "change") are related.

Around the year 900, the word appears in Old English as wice and by 1290 shows up in the Middle English phrase the seove Dawes in the wyke ("the seven days in the week").  A feudal lord might demand weekwork (from Old English wicweorc) from his tenants who would pay their rent by laboring a certain number days each week.  The tenant was not obliged to work if he could pay week-silver instead.  As the medieval peasant worked every day except Sunday, the idea of a weekend did not arise until the advent of an urban workforce who had Saturdays off.  Weekend, therefore, does not appear in print until 1638.

So where did the week come from?  

The first people to use the seven day week were the Babylonians.  

And why does the week have seven days?

Well, this is where it gets a teensy bit confusing.  (We advise any readers who finished their sandwich before they managed to read this far to skip to the final paragraph.)

It has to do with ancient Babylonian astronomy.  Babylonian astronomers had no telescopes but with clear skies and keen eyesight they mapped the "fixed" stars into constellations and identified An ancient Babyl,onian text about... er, is that the right way up? other stars which moved against this backdrop.  They knew of seven such wanderers and they named each one after a god or goddess in this sequence - Ninurta, Marduk, Nergal, Shamash, Ishtar, Nebo and Sin.  The sequence goes from slowest moving to fastest.  They reasoned that the slowest must be the furthest away, hence the highest, and therefore the most important.  We now know them as Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury and the moon, respectively.  This was the original set of seven "planets"  as understood by the ancients (planet is from  Greek planetes "wanderer").  Come to think of it, it's  not just the ancients...  Most of us reserve the term planet for a body which orbits the sun but even today astrologers still use the Babylonian definition.

What has all this to do with the days of the week?  Well the whole mess started when the Babylonian astronomers tried to name the hours after the planets.

The Babylonian day was a twelve-hours-in-the-daytime, twelve-hours-in-the-nighttime system which they had imported from Egypt.  (Sound familiar?)  They named the hours after the planets in the sequence described above: Ninurta (Saturn), Marduk (Jupiter), Nergal (Mars), Shamash (the sun), Ishtar (Venus), Nebo (Mercury) and Sin (the moon).  This cycle was repeated endlessly so that when a day ended, the cycle of hours continued into the new day. 

Let's take a look what happens when this cycle is repeated over several days...

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
  1 Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb
  2 Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M
D 3 Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I
A 4 Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni
Y 5 M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh
S 6 I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si
  7 Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr
  8 Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb Si Ni M Nr Sh I Nb

Two things are immediately apparent.

  1. the pattern repeats every seven days
  2. the first hour of each day has a different planet/god.

This gave the Babylonians their method of naming days - they used the name of hour with which it began.  The resulting sequence of day-names is quite different from that of the planets and, just to complicate things further, they decided to start the list with Shamash.  Why?  Well, anyone could see that the sun was the most impressive of the "wandering stars" so they started their counting from the sun's day.  Reading first hour of each day in the diagram, we see that the order was Shamash (the sun), Sin (the moon), Nergal (Mars), Nebo (Mercury), Marduk (Jupiter), Ishtar (Venus), and Ninurta (Saturn). 

Not confused yet?  Well, consider this:  Although they imported the Egyptian day, the Babylonians used a homegrown system for minutes and seconds.  These they divided into 60 because the Babylonian numbering system mixed base10 arithmetic with base6.  This very peculiar method of counting is also the reason we divide a circle into 360 degrees. 

Babylonian (also known as Chaldean) astronomers were highly esteemed in the ancient world, after all, they could divide by 360.  Even so, it is quite amazing that their rickety, ramshackle system has persisted to the present, giving us 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week.  And we even name our days after the same gods.

Well, kinda.  When ancient cultures met, they often recognized familiar features in the foreigners' gods and drew parallels.  Here's how the ancients saw some of the correspondences... 

"Planet" God Day
Modern Babylon Babylon Greece Rome
Teutonic Anglo-Saxon
Sun Shamash Shamash Helios or Apollo Sol or
- - Sunday
Moon  Sin  Sin  Selene Luna - - Monday
Mars  Nergal  Nergal  Ares Mars Tiwas Tiw Tuesday
Mercury Nebo  Nebo  Hermes Mercurius Odin Woden Wednesday
Jupiter Marduk  Marduk  Zeus Jupiter Donar Thor Thursday
Venus Ishtar  Ishtar  Aphrodite Venus Frigg Frig Friday
Saturn Ninurta  Ninurta  Chronos Saturnus - - Saturday

Here we see that our days of the week are derived from two distinct sources.  One group is named after planets.  Sunday, Monday and Saturday are translations of the Latin dies solis ("day of the sun"), dies lunae ("day of the moon") and dies saturni ("day of Saturn"), names which were first used in the cult of Mithras.  The remainder, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, are named after Anglo-Saxon gods.  These gods (and one goddess) were chosen to correspond with the gods of Greece and Rome though the parallels which they saw no longer seem obvious to us.

We will consider the meanings of individual day names in forthcoming issues.

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Lee Daniel Quinn:

Anyone familiar with British Hunting Pinks, a term associated with fox hunting, knows that the color of these clothes are a rich vibrant red - not pink by any stretch of the imagination.  I've heard that a tailor named Pinks had something to do with it.  Is this true?. 

Yes, indeed.  The hunting pink (singular) is a brilliant red horse-riding jacket.  One might assume that the English fox-hunting crowd are either color-blind or simply sloppy with their choice of words.  

Neither of these is the case as this kind of jacket is named after its inventor - a tailor named Mr. Pink.  However, a quick search of the web revealed at least one tailor who spells it pinque..  (How poash!) 

In case wasn't confusing enough enough, pink can also mean :

  • A flower, of the Dianthus genus

  • The pale reddish color of that flower.

  • A completely different color, often yellow or greenish, made from nixing vegetable pigment with a mineral base.  Thus brown pink and French pink are derived from the berries of Rhamnus infectoria while Dutch, English, and Italian pink are from quercitron bark (Quercus tinctoria).

  • Something small or diminutive.  A pink eye once meant a winking (i.e. contracted) eye.

  • The song of the chaffinch (from its pink-pink sound)

  • A type of small sea-going vessel

  • A hole or eyelet punched into cloth or leather as decoration

  • A fish (variously a minnow, young salmon or kind of eel)

  • And Pink with an upper-case P was once slang for "Pinkerton agent".

The pink which is a flower is so-called because its petals have jagged ends (as if they had been cut off with pinking shears).  And the familiar color pink is named after the color of the flower.

From D. J. Sonnenburg:

Could you please provide the origin and time-frame of stool as applied to feces.

Since first recorded in 725 stool has meant any kind of chair for a single person.  The porphyry stool, for instance, is a throne used by popes.

By 1400 it had also come to mean a particular kind of seat, the close-stool or commode.  Next, the expression to go to stool arose as a euphemism for "defecate".  This neatly parallels the euphemism to go to the bathroom.  This turn of phrase is peculiarly American and Brits are baffled by such statements as "the dog went to the bathroom in the living room".

By the end of the 16th century, doctors were using stool to mean "feces" per se.

From Regina Diane Davidson:Help stamp out feet!

Where did the English measurement foot come from?

From feet.  It was the length of a foot.

The word is a descendant of the Indo-European *pod- "foot", a fascinating root word which also gave us path, podium and octopus among many others.

Foot shares its Teutonic ancestry with fetter and (some say) fetch.

From Angela:

I was wondering if you could tell me the etymology of bereaved.

We hope that you are not bereaved yourself, Angela.  The literal meaning of the word is "robbed" and it stems from the verb to reave (Old English reafian) meaning "to rob".  Reave is related both to rob (from Old French robber "to rob") and rape (from Latin rapere "to steal").

From Margaret Smith:

I am curious to know whether there is a meaningful relationship between the word cancer (as in the disease) and the astrological sign Cancer.

You have probably worked out already that cancer in Latin meant "crab".  The disease was named by the ancient doctor Galen who thought that the swollen veins surrounding tumor resembled a crabsMedieval weather forecast - Boiled crab seen in night sky,-plague imminent limbs. The word was adopted in Old English as cancer and the Normans brought their version, cancre around 1100.  The Romans pronounced their word canker and we spell it that way when we mean a disease of plants.  The Norman French word survives as chancre "venereal ulcer".

The constellation takes its name from a very minor incident in the "Labors of Hercules".  Due to a spell cast over him by the goddess Hera, Hercules slaughtered his own children.  In atonement, the gods required him to spend twelve years in service to King Eurystheus of Mycenae who demanded that Hercules perform absurdly difficult tasks.  One such task was to slay the Hydra, a multi-headed serpent-like monster.  Hercules grappled with it and slashed at it with his sword, but as soon as he cut off one of its heads, two more grew back.  Hercules was able to defeat the Hydra only with the help of his charioteer Iolaus who burned each stump with a flaming torch as the heads were cut off, preventing the heads from growing back.  Eventually, Hercules managed to slaughter the monster but not without some interference from Hera.

Hera sent a crab scuttling out from the swamp to distract Hercules by nipping at his feet but it was no match for a semi-divine hero figure.  Hercules crushed the crab beneath his heel and Hera rewarded its efforts by placing it among the stars, alongside the Hydra.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeons' Corner

Chandra McCann, regular reader and guest curmudgeon, is outraged...

Over the last year or so, I have noticed a growing trend which is quickly replacing the errant apostrophe as my biggest grammatical pet peeve. This trend I might call the errant hyphen. It seems to be the result of overgeneralization of such perfectly acceptable constructions as "the three-year-old boy".  People read this type of construction and assume that the hyphens are necessary in sentences such as, "The boy is three years old" (which they write as "three-years-old"). Just today, in the local paper, I read the following sentence: "The man has been sentenced to 20-months in jail". I have also seen abominations such as "My sister is two-years-older than me". Occasionally, I have attempted to explain to people that the hyphens can only be used when the phrase as a whole is serving as either an adjective (e.g. "three-year-old boy") or a noun (e.g. "a group of three-year-olds"). Unfortunately, the response is usually a blank stare, followed by the query, "What's an adjective?"...

Not using hyphens can be just as annoying.   Consider the phrase "a pickled herring merchant".  Are we to understand it as "a pickled-herring merchant" or  "a pickled herring-merchant"?

Sez You...

Last week's letters will be staying for a little longer...  New stuff soon [next issue].

From Dick Timberlake:

I did a little research and came up with some "equal time" for our friend Al. 
Here are a couple of quotes in the same vein as that have been beating around 
the Bush. (Of course, we don't hear as much about these do to the extreme 
collectivist bias of the media.) Anyhow, here goes:

In 1992, in a jab at then-President Bush, Big Al is quoted as saying, "A zebra 
does not change its spots". Then, in 1998, Gore referred to Michael Jordan as 
Michael Jackson. 

For more Gore-isms, check out

That takes care of the major parties - got any good dish on Harry Browne, 
the Libertarian? (If you haven't heard of Mr. Browne, or the Libertarian 
Party, check out

Thanks for the the gory details, Dick.  And no, we don't have any "dish" on Mr. Browne or Mr, Nader.  Yet.


From Scott Weller:

In Issue 100, Sez You, you said "Norwest is perfectly acceptable in certain circumstances. Compass readings, for instance. Hitchcock may have called his movie "North By Northwest" but any mariner would say nor' by norwest."

I respectfully submit that no mariner would say either, as there is no such direction.  However, although your example was wrong, your general point was exactly correct.  The by point that is generally written "Northwest by West" would most definitely have been said "nor'west by west".

I won't go into it here, but if you'd like I can give you a surprisingly brief set of rules for what constitutes a valid compass direction.

Please don't be modest. Let's have it.

From Grainthorn:

I recall somewhere in Dickens, possibly "David Copperfield", when one character says to another, "Dead?" and gets the response, "Drown-ded", which would seem to suggest that the word was known in England in the Nineteenth Century.

Well spotted.

Can any reader confirm Grainthorn's memory?

From Matt Goers:

I know that the last thing you want (well, maybe not THE last thing) is
to have an ongoing discussion about letter frequency after breaking your
own rule about non-etymological queries. Despite this, I must ponder
what you hold against the letter c. The letter frequency list you gave
in Issue 102 was:


This corresponds with every other letter frequency list I've seen as
far as the 7th letter, which is s. After that, some lists switch h and
r, some then switch d and l, and other minor changes. But you list the
letter c 18th. The old Linotype machines laid out their letters
according to frequency; their frequency puts c 13th, between u and m. 



In Cryptography by Denning, letter frequency is given as percentages
to the nearest tenth of a percent. C comes in a 3-way tie for 12th
place, along with u and m. 

Denning in Cryptography: (those with a dash between are tied)


An analysis of several Gigabytes of Usenet traffic was done in circa
1994 for the rec.puzzles newsgroup. This probably best represents
modern American English as it is sloppily written and often misspelled. 
That aside, that letter frequency list, which may be found at a number
of rec.puzzles archive sites under language/english, is:


So, admit your bias against the letter c (and, to a lesser extent, p). 
Sure, it kould be replased by k or s if not for the strong influense of
Latin.  But that's no reason for sutsh unabashed diskrimination.

Oh the shame!  But yes, it is true.  Due to our secret hatred of the letter C we demoted it in the letter-frequency sequence.  (Well, it's such a whiny little runt, always needing K to back it up.)

As Matt points out, our sequence is incorrect.  We made a transcription error but, yet again, we maintain our standards of accuracy through the erudition (and pedantic insistence) of a reader. 

Thanks, Matt.

From Consuelo Lopez-Morillas:

A couple of points for Sez You:

1) Regional American English has various ways of trying to create a 2nd-person plural of you: "youse" in New York, "you all" in the South, and here in Southern Indiana "you-uns." It's recently occurred to me that "you guys" applied to members of both sexes is a creation along those same lines.

We'd missed you-uns, that's a good one.  

2) The final -s of "backwards", "forwards", "besides" etc. I've heard described as the "adverbial -s". Observe that it often does crop up in prepositions or adverbs of place or direction, and it seems to be fairly productive in English.

Hmm... "adverbial -s" you say.  We need to think about that.

Laughing Stock
From Eric Phillips:

Here's something related to your search for antonyms without "-nyms." It's quite likely you've seen this already, but if not, I think you'll find it enjoyable.

No, we hadn't seen it and you are right, Eric.  It is funny.

How I Met My Wife


Jack Winter

It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate.

I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.

I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I'd have to make bones about it, since I was traveling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn't be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do.

Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or a sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion.

So I decided not to risk it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make heads or tails of.

I was plussed. It was concerting to see that she was communicado, and it nerved me that she was interested in a pareil like me, sight seen. Normally, I had a domitable spirit, but, being corrigible, I felt capacitated - as if this were something I was great shakes at - and forgot that I had succeeded in situations like this only a told number of times. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings.

Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. Wanting to make only called-for remarks, I started talking about the hors d'oeuvres, trying to abuse her of the notion that I was sipid, and perhaps even bunk a few myths about myself.

She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savory character who was up to some good. She told me who she was. "What a perfect nomer," I said, advertently. The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me.

To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.

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