The ninth month in the Gregorian calendar is remarkable for being linked to the number seven.
It’s a naming convention we inherit from the Romans.
In the early Roman calendar, when the counting began with March, this made sense. September was then not even the first of the numbered months, as it is now. That honour went to Quintilis, the fifth month, renamed July in honour of Julius Caesar, followed by Sextilis, the sixth month, renamed many years later for his heir, Augustus.
Having focused on the origin of the word September, I find the significance of Seven stands out to me in bold. It’s hard to unknow its meaning. But it was not something that made an impression on me in the past. I did not think, every time September came around, ‘how odd’.
Did anyone protest in the past that it wasn’t logical? Was it ever debated? Did anyone think it confusing?
Perhaps, when the Roman calendar was reformed it would have been even more confusing to reset the numbered months: September would have become November, etc. To do so now would be to alter the association of a month with a particular time of year.
In the northern hemisphere, September is in the season of harvest and marks the beginning of autumn. Meteorological autumn starts on September the 1st and astronomical autumn with the equinox, which varies between 22, 23 and 24 of September.
But this is only relevant in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, the smell of spring is in the air. Or it is a season more or less dry or wet than others.
Perhaps, by the time September became the ninth month, there was no longer a strong connection between the name and its literal meaning. This is always happening with language and one of the reasons why lovers of words like to trace their origins. It can be surprising, enlightening, delightful. But the accepted convention is what it is at the time. Anything else might be thought silly. Unheard of.
To give an example: I was recently mocked by a bunch of people, enjoying the shade of a shelter on a seaside promenade, for walking under the hot sun in the shade of a small black umbrella. ‘Ooh, is it raining?’ they jeered.
Would it have done any good to point out that the word ‘umbrella’ is associated with the Latin ‘umbra’ meaning shade? They might have retorted that it may have an even earlier association with ‘umbel’, the spreading shape of a flower. There is an idea of protection from something, but of rain there is no mention. In other languages yes. In other languages they might have mocked me more legitimately for not knowing the difference between a parasol and a paraplu. One thing is true: a sunshade doesn’t need to be waterproof, unless it’s a monkey’s birthday.
But I don’t own a folding sunshade. A folding umbrella, one that telescopes and fits easily into a bag, has often saved me from sunstroke, though not always from being a figure of fun.
September. Has the disparity between the name and its eventual place in the calendar ever been a source of comedy? Or disbelief?Silly old September! Silly old Romans!
Given their many hundreds of years of dominance, perhaps not. And now it is perhaps too late to change.
Shall we start a movement? Or shall we just live with the quirks of language and the historical decisions that have brought us to where we are now?
Can you think of common words that have moved significantly from their original meanings?
Be honest: would you feel silly using a brolly for protection from the sun?