November 4, 2013

Case File #013.11.04: NOVEMBER

Novem was the Latin word for “nine,” and to this the ancient Romans added -bris, a suffix meaning “month,” to form the word Novembris, which literally meant “month nine.” Probably due to a little apocope, Novembris soon became November, though this formal shift didn't affect the semantics and the word remained the designation for the ninth month of the year. But wait—isn't November the eleventh month of the year? Well, yes. Now. The original Roman calendar, however, had only ten months, March being the first and December being the last, thus making November the ninth. This calendar was based on a lunar cycle rather than a solar one, though, and it turned out to be off by about sixty-one days. So around 713 BCE, the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, tried to compensate for the error by extending the calendar with two new months: Ianuarius and Februarius, which we English speakers now call, respectively, January and February. Since he placed these new months at the beginning of the year (that is, in front of March), November was pushed from the ninth spot to the eleventh, and despite later tweaking by Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII, this has remained the month's place on the calendar ever since. As for the word November, it passed into Old French as Novembre, carrying over the adjusted Latin meaning of “the eleventh month of the calendar year.” Middle English borrowed the Old French circa 1200—it replaced the Old English Blotmonath, which literally meant “blood month” and was so named because it was the time of year when animals were slaughtered in preparation for the coming winter—although it took a couple of centuries for the form to shift to the current November.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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