12.01.2014,11:29 AM
Tenth Month, Twelfth Month. What's in a Name?
Today is December 1st. Waiting for some warmth to chase away the chill in my feet (hot coffee is working on the rest of me), I was curious about the etymology of the word, 'December'. I was surprised to see the trail of alterations from the original root, decem, which is Latin for 'ten'.

'Ten' what? I discovered that December was the tenth month in the early Roman calendars, which started with March. Ah! So, New Year's Day was actually March 1!

T.G. Tucker, author of Etymological Dictionary of Latin, posits that the first five months of the Roman calendar were named for their occurrence in the agricultural cycle, and "after the gathering in of the crops, the months were merely numbered."  The Latin suffix -ber was added onto the five numbered calendar months.

The first calendar was thought to be invented by the Roman king Romulus (or he took all the credit) around 760 BC. It had only ten months of 30-31 days and only lasted 304 days. Thus, 61 days were unaccounted for in the winter. I wonder if life was relatively unimportant during that time. Reminds me of the long winters in the HBO series, Game of Thrones. Perhaps the Romans went around exclaiming 'Winter is coming!' and all life stood still. More likely, all human life centered around agricultural activities and winter was ignored. At least, in calendars.

Names of the first five months in the Roman calendar were derived from names of gods and goddesses, except for February. During that time of the year was a dies februatus, Latin for the "day of purification". The Roman festival of purification was celebrated on February fifteenth, but has been long lost in history.

Now, when the enlightened French displaced the global Roman influence, december became decembre. Most of the Latin calendar names were later retained or altered in the Old English version. This early form of modern English language was developed by the Anglo-Saxons in present-day England and parts of Scotland, and persisted from the mid-5th to the mid-12th centuries.

Old English, and I could argue modern English as well, is a 'mutt' language, where most of the words were borrowed from, combined with, or were bastardized (now, that word has an interesting etymology!) forms of many tongues. The Anglo-Saxons founded Old English mostly on the West Germanic languages, vastly different from the modern English. 

Indeed, if anyone had to suffer studying the epic poem Beowulf (circa 700-1000 B.C.) in its original Old English form (yes, I had to do that in high school), they might recall it was like reading a foreign language. In all essence, it was, and is. Can you imagine trying to memorize and recite it? If one considers that literacy was very uncommon in those early centuries, the poem was known more in its oral form rather than written.

Like any language, English evolved over thousands of years. Words were changed or dropped, shortened or lengthened. It's an ongoing process; grammar is simplified, and meanings change like the phases of the moon. Even pronunciation of words vary between continents and even between regions of countries. "Tomato, tomahto"; "barn and bahn"; we don't have to call the whole thing off! Like any association with self-identity, precise language usage is a relative trait of human nature. There are purists with binary black-and-white minds who insist on traditional and precise use. But there exists a huge dynamic gray world in between. Me? I consider myself a pragmatist. ;)

Regarding the month of December, the modern English name made it full circle using the original Latin name. Let's celebrate that!

Note: Bastardize is a verb derived from the well-known noun. The Old French word bastard was used for an "acknowledged child of a nobleman by a woman other than his wife, probably from fils de bast 'packsaddle son,' meaning a child conceived on an improvised bed (saddles often doubled as beds while traveling)". The term was not always demeaning; offspring from relationships non-sanctioned by the Church were common and not always discriminated against.

The word 'bastard' later assumed more derogatory meanings. The figurative sense of of the word as "something not pure or genuine" appeared in use during the late 14th century. It's popularization as a vulgar term of abuse for a man is traced back to the 1830's and sticks today.

However, the verb 'to bastardize' has been in use since the early 1500's, and figuratively means "to make degenerate, debase". We English-born people tend to do a lot of that. Even my birth-given name is a bastardization of a German name. I get some odd looks when I explain that to people. ;)

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posted by Macrobe
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