Calendar Musings

Julius Caesar
Photo by Ilona Frey on Unsplash

Last Wednesday you were left in suspense as to the etymology of dichalcogenides, a chemical something or other into which molecules can be intercalated, or (in the interest of saving syllables) added. Let’s dispatch dichalcogenides before moving on to other matters.

Dichalcogenides (a word I have copied and pasted rather than typed three times) illustrates the value of breaking a word down into its various components in order to understand it. If you focus on the syllable -gen-, you find the Greek and Latin word meaning “birth” or “origin,” as in genesis, genes, pathogen (giving birth to illness), and so on. Moving backwards to chalco-, we find the Greek root khalkos, meaning “copper” or, more generally, “ore.” You probably recognize di- as a prefix meaning “two,” as in dichotomy.

A group of elements in the periodic table (oxygen and sulphur, for example) are referred to as “chalcogens,” because they’re frequently derived from copper ores; they’re “born from ores.” A dichalcogenide contains two atoms of one of those elements. Di + chalco + genides.

You’ll have to consult your favorite chemistry professor if you’d like to delve into this further.

As to the calendar, where all of this started last week, you’ll note that the month we’re about to enter, December, is a misnomer, because decem means “ten,” and December is the twelfth month. You may have heard that Julius Caesar added two months in the middle of the year, July and August, thus throwing off the numbering system. That’s not quite right.

The early Romans began the year with March, celebrating Mars, the god of war. April may have come from the Latin verb meaning “open,” as in the opening of spring buds. May took its name from Maia, a goddess who represented nurturing and growth, and Juno, queen of the gods, gave her name to June. Starting with July, the months were named for numbers. July was Quintilis (5), August was Sextilis (6), and September, October, November and December were named for the numbers 7-10. Caesar renamed Quintilis after himself when he, and his sidekick, the mathematician Sosigenes, revised the calendar. Julius’s successor, Augustus Caesar, renamed Sextilis after himself. Later emperors tried to memorialize themselves as well, but the new names, such as Neronius, did not stick.

According to tradition, the Roman king Numa Pompilius in 713 BCE replaced March as the first month of the year with January, named after Janus, the god of beginnings and doorways. He also added February, giving us a twelve-month calendar but neglecting to correct the names of the last four months.

To correct the error, September, October, November, and December would have to become November, December, Undecimber, and Duodecimber. What do you think? Should we do it?

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2 Responses to Calendar Musings

  1. Kathy says:

    Ros: What an interesting idea.

  2. Ros Gauchat says:

    Let’s leave our heavily, overweighted Greco-Roman heritage, and embrace some months with names the indigenous people gave them, and bring us back to the earth: “the hungry moon”, “the harvest moon” etc.. or make up our own, which we will have to adjust according to climate change: “surprise warming month” or “hurricane month” or “wildfire month”, “flood month”, “polar vortex month”….

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