Ever wondered why we call the months what we do? Wonder no longer! Here’s our handy guide to the names of the months of the year. Like many bits of culture, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but we can thank the Romans for most of it…
January is named after the Roman god Janus. As you can see in this print, he had two faces so he could see the future and the past! He was also the god of doors.
Jacobus Harrewyn (1660/1–1732/40), January from the print series The Months. Engraving, 1698.
February is named after an ancient Roman festival of purification called Februa.
John Samuel Agar (1773–1858), Februa in a shell, pulled by Pisces, represented by two fish. After Edward Francis Burney, from a series of the months. Stipple and etching, 1807.
March is named after Mars, the Roman god of war. This statue shows him in battle gear. The Roman calendar originally began in March, and the months of January and February were added later, after a calendar reform.
Copper-alloy figure of Mars, the Roman god of war. Wearing the armour of a general, he would originally have held a spear in his right hand, now missing, and possibly a shield in his left (also missing). From Earith, Cambridgeshire, Roman Britain, 2nd century AD.
April takes its name from the Latin word aperire, meaning ‘to open’ (just like flowers do in spring!). Here’s a beautifully detailed watercolour drawing of a vase of flowers by French artist Antoine Jules Pelletier. The Romans called the month Aprilis.
Antoine Jules Pelletier (fl. c. 1848), A vase of flowers on a marble table. Watercolour, strengthened with gum, c. 1848.
May is named after the Greek goddess Maia. This print is an allegorical representation of the month of May. The artist has included the twins Castor and Pollux because the zodiac sign of Gemini starts in May.
Christian Bernhard Rode (1725–1797), Allegorical representation of the month of May. The twins Castor (resting on a cloud) and Pollux (with a spear and shield) are watching a shepherdess. Etching, 1791.
June is named after the Roman goddess Juno – the god of marriage and childbirth, and the wife of Jupiter, king of the gods. Here she is seated in a chariot.
Giulio Bonasone (1500/10–1574), The Triumph of Juno from the series Loves, Rages and Jealousies of Juno. Engraving, 1531–1576.
July and August were named after two major figures of the ancient Roman world – the statesman Julius Caesar (on the left above, slightly damaged!) and Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.
Left: Marble head from a statue, probably of Julius Caesar. Roman, from the Sanctuary of Athena Polias at Priene, c. 50 BC. Right: Bronze head of the Roman emperor Augustus. From Meroë, Sudan, c. 27–25 BC.
But what about the rest? September, October, November and December are named after Roman numbers 7, 8, 9 and 10 – they were originally the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months of the Roman year! Before July and August were renamed after Roman rulers, they were called Quintilis and Sextilis, meaning fifth and sixth months. How boring!
Thomas Bewick (1753–1828), The moon in a design for a Half-Moon Tavern. Wood engraving, c. 1773.
So now you know why we call the months what we do. Here’s one last fact – the word ‘month’ itself is related to the moon. It originally measured how long it took for the moon to complete a cycle around the earth, so ‘moon’ and ‘month’ come from the same root.
Here’s How the Months of the Year Got Their Names
Fun fact: January has not always been first on our calendars. For ancient Romans, the year began in March and finished ten months later in December, according to Wonderopolis.org, an education site by the National Center for Families Learning. The months of January and February, meanwhile, did not have official titles for centuries. When King Pompilius revamped the Roman calendar around 690 B.C., he named January after Janus, the Roman god of doors and beginnings. Seems appropriate for the first month of the new year. Turns out, being first could also explain why January is the most popular month for divorce.
Ancient Romans always celebrated the year's end with a festival called “Februa.” When King Pompilius named the 12th month of the Roman year, he chose February after that period of celebration.
In 1582, Pope Gregory tweaked the calendar again, changing the start of the year to January 1 for most western countries. England and the American colonies, for their part, continued to celebrate the new year in February until 1752.
Funny enough, the Romans also played a role in the bizarre reason February only has 28 days.
If you were born before 690 B.C., you would have considered March—not January—the first month of the calendar year.
Tradition called for Romans to put down their swords in a ceasefire during January and February (the two months between the old and new years), which meant that wars would have resumed on March 1.
As a result, many experts believe that the Romans named March after Mars, the Roman god of war, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) writes. Learn more surprising facts about the month of March.
Believe it or not, the source of April's name has stumped historians for centuries. Because it was the second month on the ancient Roman calendar, some claim its title comes from the Latin word for “second.
” Others believe the name is linked to the term “aperire,” which means “to open” in Latin—named for the budding greenery in spring. Still, others speculate that April was named after the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite.
The true origins are anyone's guess.
The month of May was named in honor of the Greek goddess Maia, guardian of nature and growing plants. Never heard of her? You're not alone. Maia may have been one of the lesser-known deities in Greek mythology, but she punched above her weight.
According to Greek mythology, Maia was the daughter of Atlas, the titan who carried the world on his shoulders, and mother of Hermes, the messenger for the gods.
She was also known as the goddess of the earth, so it's no surprise that this springtime month bears her name.
A History of the Months and the
Meanings of their Names
Janus is the Roman god of gates and doorways,
depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions.
His festival month is January.
Januarius had 29 days,
until Julius when it became 31 days long. Middle English Februarius
Latin Februarius “of Februa”
Latin Februa(s) “Februa” + –arius “ary (pertaining to)”
Latin Februarius mensis “month of Februa”
Latin dies februatus “day of purification”
Februarius had 28 days,
until circa 450 BC
when it had 23 or 24 days on some of every second year,
until Julius when it had 29 days on every fourth year
and 28 days otherwise.
Februa is the Roman festival of purification,
held on February fifteenth.
It is possibly of Sabine origin. Latin Intercalaris “inter-calendar”
Latin Mercedonius (popular name) “?”
Intercalaris had 27 days
until the month was abolished by Julius. Middle English March(e)
Old English Martius
Latin Martius “of Mars”
Latin Marti(s) “Mars” + –us (adj. suffix)
Latin Martius mensis “month of Mars”
Martius has always had 31 days.
March was the original beginning of the year,
and the time for the resumption of war.
Mars is the Roman god of war.
He is identified with the Greek god
Ares. Old English April(is)
Greek Aphro, short for Aphrodite.
Aprilis had 30 days,
until Numa when it had 29 days,
until Julius when it became 30 days long.
is the Greek goddess of love and beauty.
She is identified with the Roman goddess Venus. Old French Mai
Old English Maius
Latin Maius “of Maia”
Latin Maius mensis “month of Maia”
- Maius has always had 31 days.
- Maia (meaning “the great one”) is the Italic goddess of spring,
the daughter of Faunus, and wife of Vulcan. Middle English jun(e)
Old French juin
Old English junius
Latin Junius “of Juno”
Latin Junius mensis “month of Juno”
- Junius had 30 days,
until Numa when it had 29 days,
until Julius when it became 30 days long.
Juno is the principle goddess of the Roman Pantheon.
She is the goddess of marriage and the well-being of women.
She is the wife and sister of Jupiter.
She is identified with the Greek goddess
Hera. Middle English Julie
Latin Julius “Julius”
Latin Julius mensis “month of Julius”
Latin quintilis mensis “fifth month”
Quintilis (and later Julius) has always had 31 days.
Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar
(hence the Julian calendar) in 46 BC.
In the process, he renamed this month after himself. Latin Augustus “Augustus”
Latin Augustus mensis “month of Augustus”
Latin sextilis mensis “sixth month”
Sextilis had 30 days,
until Numa when it had 29 days,
until Julius when it became 31 days long.
Augustus Caesar clarified and completed the calendar reform
of Julius Caesar.
In the process, he also renamed this month after himself. Middle English septembre
Latin septem “seven” + -ber (adj. suffix)
Latin september mensis “seventh month”
September had 30 days,
until Numa when it had 29 days,
until Julius when it became 30 days long. Middle English octobre
Latin octo “eight” + -ber (adj. suffix)
Latin october mensis “eighth month”
October has always had 31 days. Middle English Novembre
Latin Novembris mensis “nineth month”
Novembris had 30 days,
until Numa when it had 29 days,
until Julius when it became 30 days long. Middle English decembre
Old French decembre
Latin december “tenth month”
Latin decem “ten” + -ber (adj. suffix)
December had 30 days,
until Numa when it had 29 days,
until Julius when it became 31 days long. These sources are somewhat inconsistent.
I have chosen interpretations
that are predominate among sources
or that seem most reasonable.
- William Morris, editor,
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,
New College Edition,
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1976
- Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary
of the English Language,
Portland House, New York, 1989
- William Matthew O'Neil,
Time and the Calendars,
Sydney University Press, 1975 The Royal Greenwich Observatory
provides information on
the date of Easter,
the equation of time,
leap years, and
the year 2000 AD.
- The United States Naval
Observatory has several
systems of time.
Lawrence A. Crowl,
27 September 1995
Months of the Year—Origin of Their Names
They are among the most commonly used words in the English language. They are the yardsticks by which we define the turning of the Earth on its axis, and the revolution of the Earth around the Sun.
They are the words we use to date the events of history and our lives. They are the seven days of the week and the twelve months of the year.
But why seven days? And twelve months? And where do the very names themselves come from?
In two pages I will try to answer some of these questions.
- 1 ) JANUARY – The Month of Janus, the Roman God of the gateway
- 2 ) FEBRUARY – The Month of Februa, the Roman Festival of Purification
- 3 ) MARCH – The Month of Mars, the Roman God of War
- 4 ) APRIL – The Month of Aprilis, which means 'opening' (of leaves and buds)
- 5 ) MAY – The Month of Maia, Greco-Roman Goddess of Spring and Fertility
- 6 ) JUNE – The Month of Juno, the principal Roman goddess
- 7 ) JULY – Named in honour of Roman dictator, Julius Caesar
- 8 ) AUGUST – Named in honour of Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar
- 9 ) SEPTEMBER – Named simply as 'the 7th month of the year'
- 10) OCTOBER – Named simply as 'the 8th month of the year'
- 11) NOVEMBER – Named simply as 'the 9th month of the year'
- 12) DECEMBER – Named simply as 'the 10th month of the year'
The reason for calendars was to record long periods of time, and to predict important events such as the flooding of the Nile in Egypt, and the only way in which ancient civilisations could do this was through the natural astronomical cycles.
Three such cycles were known to the ancients – the day (rotation of the Earth), the year (revolution of the Earth around the Sun), and – significantly for the purposes of this discussion – the lunar cycle (revolution of the Moon around the Earth).
Unfortunately, none of these natural cycles divide up evenly; a year doesn't divide accurately into an equal number of lunar cycles (or months), and each lunar cycle or month could not divide into an equal number of days.
It was impossible for ancient civilisations to marry up these different concepts in a precisely accurate way, and every system employed resulted in enormously convoluted and contrived calendars, all of which introduced errors of some degree, even though the ancients had already worked out the length of the Solar year with impressive accuracy.
One aspect of the calendar did become established at a fairly early stage – the number of months in a year. Lunar cycles are about 29.53 days long, and there are about 365.24 days in the year.
Simple division allowed the ancients to partition the year into 12 segments. (Although very briefly the Romans did experiment with a curious 10 month year – see below).
What remained was to allocate names to these months, and to allocate the number of days to each month (as 365 could not be divided into 12 months of equal days).
The naming of the months will be covered in the following sections. The allocation of the number of days that each month would possess proved extraordinarily difficult to standardise, and the systems used were many and varied. A detailed description is beyond the scope of this page, but the following links may help anyone who is interested:
- Roman Calendar Wiki
- Roman Calendar
The next four sections are concerned solely with the calendar of ancient Rome, as this is the calendar which has come down through the centuries to be adopted by the western world and specifically the English-speaking world. During this period there was much tinkering with the calendar to try to make it as accurate and as useful as possible, but three major changes occurred, and these will be illustrated in the three tables below.
The original Roman calendar at the time of the foundation of Rome c750 BC – allegedly created by Romulus – actually had, somewhat bizarrely, only 10 named months, despite the apparent logic of a 12 month year. Certain points are immediately apparent. (SEE TABLE 1)
1) The first month of the year was March.
2) Most of the months had names which surprisingly really haven't changed very much over the centuries, and are still quite recognisable in the Roman form.
Indeed some – quite remarkably – have not changed at all.
The principal exceptions to this familiarity are Quintilis and Sextilis – quite different to their modern English counterparts.
3) It may be that the period at the end of the year (c 61 days) was simply un-named and undivided, or it may be that two un-named months existed. The reason for the strange anonymity of this period is probably because it was wintertime.
The main purpose of a calendar at this time would have been to chart the changes of the agricultural seasons and the major festivals of Rome; wintertime was a period of effective stagnation in farming, war, and religion, so there was no need for a name.
However, by the year 713 BC the legendary King Numa Pompilius – supposed successor to Romulus – reformed the calendar by altering the numbers of days in each month, and installing two new months – Ianuarius and Februarius
Explainer: where do the names of our months come from?
Our lives run on Roman time. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and public holidays are regulated by Pope Gregory XIII’s Gregorian Calendar, which is itself a modification of Julius Caesar’s calendar introduced in 45 B.C.
The names of our months are therefore derived from the Roman gods, leaders, festivals, and numbers.
If you’ve ever wondered why our 12-month year ends with September, October, November, and December – names which mean the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months – you can blame the Romans.
The calendar of Romulus
The Roman year originally had ten months, a calendar which was ascribed to the legendary first king, Romulus. Tradition had it that Romulus named the first month, Martius, after his own father, Mars, the god of war.
This month was followed by Aprilis, Maius, and Iunius, names derived from deities or aspects of Roman culture.
Thereafter, however, the months were simply called the fifth month (Quintilis), sixth month (Sixtilis) and so on, all the way through to the tenth month, December.
Mars and Rhea Silvia by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1617/20. Wikimedia Commons
The institution of two additional months, Ianuarius and Februarius, at the beginning of the year was attributed to Numa, the second king of Rome. Despite the fact that there were now 12 months in the Roman year, the numerical names of the later months were left unchanged.
Further reading: Explainer: the gods behind the days of the week
Gods and rituals
While January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, February comes from the word februum (purification) and februa, the rites or instruments used for purification. These formed part of preparations for the coming of Spring in the northern hemisphere.
The februa included spelt and salt for cleaning houses, leaves worn by priests, and strips of goat skin. These strips were put to good use in the festival of the Lupercalia, held each year on February 15.
Young men, naked except for a goat-skin cape, dashed around Rome’s sacred boundary playfully whipping women with the strips. This ancient nudie run was designed to purify the city and promote fertility.
Detail from Lupercalia by Andrea Camassei, c. 1635. Wikimedia Commons
The origins of some months were debated even by the Romans themselves. One tradition had it that Romulus named April after the goddess Aphrodite, who was born from the sea’s foam (aphros in Ancient Greek).
Aphrodite, known as Venus to the Romans, was the mother of Aeneas, who fled from Troy to Italy and founded the Roman race. The other version was that the month derived from Latin verb aperio, “I open”.
As the poet Ovid wrote:
For they say that April was named from the open season, because spring then opens all things, and the sharp frost-bound cold departs, and earth unlocks her teeming soil …
There were similar debates about the origins of May and June. There was a story that Romulus named them after the two divisions of the Roman male citizen body, the maiores (elders) and iuniores (juniors).
However, it was also believed that their names came from deities.
The nymph Maia, who was assimilated with the earth, gave her name to May, while Juno, the goddess of war and women, was honoured by the month of June.
Further reading: Explainer: the seasonal calendars of Indigenous Australia
Cameo of the emperor Augustus. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
The numerical names of the months in the second half of the year remained unchanged until the end of the Roman Republic. In 44 B.C., Quintilis was rebranded as Iulius, to celebrate the month in which the dictator Julius Caesar was born.
This change survived Caesar’s assassination (and the outrage of the orator M. Tullius Cicero, who complained about it in his letters). In 8 B.C., Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, the emperor Augustus, had Sextilis renamed in his honour. This was not his birth month (which was September), but the month when he first became consul and subjugated Egypt.
This change left four months – September, October, November and December – for later emperors to appropriate, though none of their new names survive today. Domitian renamed September, the month he became emperor, to Germanicus, in honour of his victory over Germany, while October, his birthday month, he modestly retitled Domitianus, after himself.
However, Domitian’s arrogance paled in comparison with the megalomaniacal Commodus, who rebranded all the months with his own imperial titles, including Amazonius (January) and Herculeus (October).
If these titles had survived Commodus’s death, we would not have the problem of our year ending with months carrying the wrong numerical names. But we would be celebrating Christmas on the 25th of Exsuperatorius (“All-Surpassing Conqueror”).
How Did the Months of the Year Get Their Names?
Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by nicole from AL. nicole Wonders, “how did the months get their names” Thanks for WONDERing with us, nicole!
Would you believe January was not always the first month of the year? The ancient Romans used a different calendar system, and their year began in March and ended in February!
Even though our modern system may be quite different from the ancient Romans', they gave us something very important: the months' names.
Let's take a look at how the ancient Romans chose the names of the 12 months of the year.
March: The ancient Romans insisted that all wars cease during the time of celebration between the old and new years. Since March was the first month of the new year in ancient Rome, some historians believe the Romans named March after Mars, the Roman god of war.
April: Three theories exist regarding the origin of April's name.
Some say April got its name from the Latin word meaning “second” since April was the second month on the ancient calendar.
Others claim it comes from “aperire,” a Latin word meaning “to open,” because it represents the opening of buds and flowers in spring. Still others think April was named after the goddess Aphrodite.
May: May was named after Maia, an earth goddess of growing plants.
June: Apparently, June has always been a popular month for weddings! The Romans named June after Juno, the queen of the gods and patroness of marriage and weddings.
July: July was named after Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. Previously, July was called “Quintilis,” which is Latin for “fifth.”
August: August was named after Augustus Caesar in 8 B.C. Previously, August was called “Sextillia,” which was Latin for “sixth.”
Though we think of September, October, November, and December as months 9, 10, 11 and 12, these months were 7, 8, 9, and 10 on the ancient Roman calendar. This is how they got their names.
- September: September's name comes from septem, Latin for “seven.”
- October: October's name comes from octo, Latin for “eight.”
- November: November's name comes from novem, Latin for “nine.”
- December: December's name come from decem, Latin for “ten.”
February: Around 690 B.C., Numa Pompilius turned a period of celebration at the end of the year into a month of its own, named after the festival Februa. This is how February got its name.
January: Later, Pompilius added another month to the beginning of the year and named it January after Janus, the God of beginnings and endings.
In 1582, Pope Gregory adjusted the calendar, so most western nations began celebrating the start of the year on January 1. This new calendar became known as the “Gregorian calendar.”
However, England and the American colonies continued to celebrate the new year on the date of the spring equinox in March. It was not until 1752 that the British and their colonies finally adopted the Gregorian calendar.