Episode 18: Keeping Time With The Romans

We explore the origin of modern English words related to time. A direct connection is made to the calendar reforms of Julius Caesar. The etymology of English words related to time illustrate the combined influences of the Germanic languages and Latin on modern English.


21 thoughts on “Episode 18: Keeping Time With The Romans

  1. What can i google to find an image of the Celtic calendar you you talk about? In Celtic language, but written with Roman alphabet.

  2. Regarding Saturday, oddly other Germanic languages have a quite different version. In Scandinavian it’s “bathing day” e.g. Lørdag in Norwegian. German has two different words for the day: Samstag in the south, and Sonnabend in the north, the latter meaning “the day before Sunday”.

  3. Fun fact, the seven-day week cycle we use may have been in continuous use since 500 BC. Although the Romans, like the Etruscans, used an eight-day week. It is thought the seven-day week derived from a quarter of a month and seems to have popped up independently in several cultures.

    I suggest that when you retire you make an episode 18b and elaborate on the origin of the calendar, dial, fascinating stuff though I can see how it could be peripheral to the subject at hand.

    Regarding “Mardi gras”, while it’s true that the French word gras can literally translate as “fat”, as in “grease”, I feel that “Fat Tuesday” is an oversimplification. The term gras as it’s used in French is more nuanced, for example “faire la grasse matinée” means to sleep in late, and “terre grasse” is fertile earth. Not a criticism, just for info!

    Not to SPAM your comment section, I didn’t realise I couldn’t edit post hoc.

  4. This one has me wondering why the Germans have the exact same calendar as us. They sure didn’t get it willilngly from the French. (Also, why they have ‘Mid-week’ instead of Oden’s Day).

    I know, I know- a future episode…

    Just heard about this podcast yesterday and I absolutely love it! Learning so much.

    • I haven’t specifically researched the development of the modern German calendar, but I would guess that it was borrowed from the Romans via the Holy Roman Empire. Again, that is just a guess.

      With respect to German “Mittwoch,” it was present in Old High German, and it replaced the Proto-Germanic form “*wuotanestag” (literally “Woden’s Day”). My research suggests that “Mittwoch” was a German translation of a term used in Church Latin.

      • The Wotanstag (Wodensday) was changed to Mittwoch (Mid-Week) when christian missionaries came to Germany in the 10th century to avoid celebrating the most important god, although I don’t understand why they still had a Wednesday in their homecountry. And interestingly, that Sonnabend (Sun-Evening, day before Sonntag / Sun-Day) came from the old english missionaries, too. In my childhood, about 30 years ago, Saturday was still bathing day for the whole family, because heating the water in the oven was such an annoying task… Was / is it the same day in GB?

  5. I’m loving this series having recently been referred to it, but I did have to be nitpicky on this episode…I know the history of English is the history of Europe to a vast extent, but this whole episode was constantly talking about things like “the Vernal Equinox in March” etc and I found that very hemisphere-centric, as an Antipodean 🙂 A simple disclaimer at the start mentioning that all the seasonal references were to Northern Hemisphere seasons would have been a nice acknowledgement of your Southern Hemisphere listeners 🙂

  6. Hi Kevin,

    I am an English as a Second Language teacher from Illinois. Yes, I spend my days working with immigrants to help them learn English, but another part of my job is handling professional development (as I do training for my district, as well as local and state agencies). Currently, I’m working on a project that links together the history of how we reckon time along with it’s religious, linguistic, and astronomical elements. Could you refer me to a book or a couple of links where I may be able to find some comparative information on the names of days, months, season, etc.? Thank you so much. I love your podcast.

  7. Another word related to some of the “light” words you covered: Lucifer.

    It’s the word for “light” combined with -fer, related to the verbs in Greek and Latin for “to bring/bear/carry.” So “bringer of light.” Similar -fer for the name Christopher and the words aquifer, transfer, infer, etc.

  8. Hi, Kevin, you say day and god (deus) are etymologically linked but etymonline says day has another origin? Pls help! Thanks Jen

    • Hi Jen. I think you misheard my comments. Admittedly, my wording may have been a little confusing, but I began by discussing the ‘concept’ of a day astronomically. Then I discussed the Latin-derived words from “deus,” but I concluded that discussion by noting that the English word “day” is unrelated to those words. My specific comments about “day” can be found around the 13:30 minute mark.

  9. When listening to the episode a lot of things I kind of knew or knew of just ‘clicked’.

    I mean, a calendar that ignores the cycle and phases of the moon seems so obvious today, but to move from a lunar calendar to that was surely a big step for the people of the ancient world – before the advent of clocks.

    You managed to explain this, and more, in such a way that it just, as I already said, clicked. Thank you.

    I wanted to comment on the tiny bit about the name of Friday in Icelandic. I’m sure you were thinking of Faroese, which is “fríggjadagur”. Icelandic lost this connection to the old gods when a bishop decided in the twelfth century that those names do not fit a Christian nation – so he managed to rename them all. Since that time Friday has been “föstudagur”, or the day of fast.

  10. Presumably the year and the first month started not at the vernal equinox, but on the day of the first new moon after the equinox. Otherwise the first month, March, would have a variable length. It’s similar to how Easter is calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
    The first day of the month was the ‘kalends’, whence calendar. Note also that at the time of the pre-Julian calendar, there were no name days as we know them today. And they didn’t use our seven-day week, but rather had a “market day” every eighth day.

  11. You mention that solstice comes from “sun standing” but it sounds as if you heard it was called that because the trajectory would reverse.

    Actually, if you are at a latitude similar to Rome the trajectory doesn’t reverse until it has stayed unchanged for about three days. There are differences over those days, they are just too small to measure easily.

    The solstice was literally when the sun would stand still (or remain at the same trajectory) for multiple days.

  12. At about 44.35 in this episode you say something like “they decided to convert to a lunar year with a lunar year being 365 days with a leap year added every 4 years to account for the extra 6 hours which accrued each year.” So clearly a bit confusing and surely not what you meant to say. Worth splicing a corrected bit in?

    Thanks for a great series. Do you normally record a whole episode in 1 take? Sounds like you do but cannot imagine that you do.

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