On this august occasion

Being the first day of August, I thought some discussion of our new month’s name would be in order.

What we now know as August, the eighth month, used to be the sixth month in the ancient Roman calendar (since the year began in March) and was called, appropriately, Sextilis. The name of the month was later changed to honor Augustus (meaning “revered”), the founder of the Roman Empire. Many significant events in his life happened in this month, which is why it was chosen to honor him.

His great-uncle, Julius Caesar, also lent his name to a month, July, not to mention to the calendar itself, the Julian Calendar. However, because this calendar slightly miscalculated the length of a year, the newer Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII, was created and is still in use.  It correctly adjusts the recording of time via the selective use of leap years. The church did this to correct the occurrences of Easter to always coincide with the spring equinox (when the change to the new calendar was made, ten days were skipped to make up for prior errors).

The fact that what we now know as August was once the sixth month is reflected in the names of the months that follow it:  September means seventh (as in septendecennial, or every seventeen years), October means eighth (as in octopus and octagon), November means ninth (seen only in botanical and zoological  names), and December means tenth (as in decimate and decahedron). Obviously, these numbered months no longer line up with their place in the modern calendar.

And what did the Romans call the first day of the month? “Calends,” from which we get the word “calendar,” which means to announce or proclaim. The middle day of the month, which Caesar knew all too well, was called the “ides.”

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