How we got the names of the days of the week

It never quite hit me, entirely, how each day of the week got its name – not fully – until I was watching the movie “Thor” last night (I’m not sure how, but I hadn’t heard about it when it came out), and they mentioned that Thursday is “Thor’s Day.”

I didn’t know that.  So I googled the names of the week, and found something else I never fully appreciated.  The romance languages in Europe literally have different names – a different concept – of each day of the week than we do.  And I don’t mean that to sound naive – of course each language has a different word.  But we also have different concepts of the meaning of the day, the origin of the meaning at least.

Meaning, for English-speakers, Thursday is Thor’s Day.  But for romance speakers, Thursday is Jeudi (French), Jueves (Spanish), and Giovedi (Italian).  All of those are based on Jove, aka Jupiter, Zeus, the king of the Greco-Roman gods.  So we don’t just use a different word, the day is devoted to an entirely other concept.

Days of the week, via Shutterstock

Days of the week, via Shutterstock

I went through Wikipedia and checked out the other days:

Same thing happens with Sunday.  For us, it’s the Sun’s Day.  For romance people, it’s the Lord’s day: dimanche, domingo, domenica.

Monday, we all share.  Moon’s Day is the same in French (lundi), Spanish (lunes) and Italian (lunedi).  All based on the moon.

Tuesday is similar, but not entirely shared.  In English, it’s apparently the day of the Norse god Tiw, a god of combat.  In Romance, it’s Mars, the Roman god of war – mardi, martes, martedi.

Wednesday is interesting.  It’s based on a god named Wodan – Wodan’s Day.  And what do they call Wodan further north?  Odin.  The king of Norse mythology.  So Wednesday is actually Odin’s Day for we English people.  For the romance folks, it’s Mercury’s Day, which I never really realized, even though I speak the languages: mercredi, miércoles, mercoledi – all Mercury.

Thursday, as noted, is Thor’s Day.  But it’s Juno’s or Jupiter’s Day for the romance people.

Friday is Frige’s Day – a Norse goddess associated with Venus in that the planet Venus is named Friggjarstjarna, or Frigg’s star.  Which corresponds with romance vendredi, viernes, and venerdi – all of which are based on Venus.

Saturday is obviously Saturn’s Day.  In French, Spanish and Italian – samedi, sabado, and sabato – it’s from the word Sabbath.

I suppose I knew a lot of this already, but I had never fully appreciated that the origins of the days were so different for English-speakers than they were for romance speakers.  Now we know.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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  • bpollen

    I like Good Friday. The concept just kills me:

    Our Lord and Savior just died. Let’s celebrate!

  • Ninong

    That’s because Latin was a common language for more than 2,000 years. That’s a very long time for any language. The Latin taught in Latin textbooks is based on classical authors, starting with Cicero and usually ending with Marcus Aurelius. That would cover the period from about 70 BCE to 180 CE, roughly 250 years. That’s what is commonly called Classical Latin. Some people extend the classical period by another 100 years but I always considered it to have died with Marcus Aurelius.

    The period of several hundred years prior to Cicero is considered Early Latin and the period following the Classical Period is considered Late Latin, although you might also want to breakdown the Late Latin period into subperiods.

    I took four years of high school Latin and all of it was from the Classical Period. Fortunately for me, that was before so-called Reconstructed Latin Pronunciation came out in the late 1950’s. You have to keep in mind that Latin was the universal language of scholarship in the Western World at least through the 18th century. It’s only over the past couple of centuries that Latin died out, except in the Roman Catholic Church.

    We were taught pronunciation that probably hasn’t changed since the 15th century. Some colleges today teach that the name Caesar should be pronounced exactly the same as the German word Kaiser. Caesar’s famous quote, “Veni, vidi, vici,” comes out as “Way-nee, wee-dee, wee-kee,” according to this so-called Reconstructed Latin Pronunciation. To me it sounds like if you asked a German to simply read the words for you.

    As far as spelling of the words goes, so much of that changed over the centuries after the Latin language picked up new letters that didn’t exist during the Classical Period. The letters ‘j’ and ‘v’ weren’t added until the 11th century. Before that all you had were ‘i’ and ‘u’ and the ‘u’ wasn’t even rounded at the bottom — it looked exactly like a ‘v’ but it was considered to be a ‘u’. The letter ‘k’ wasn’t used for original Latin words but it came in with Greek words.

    I think what’s confusing is that you will see different spellings of the same words. The acronym INRI for example, is more easily understood if you see it spelled Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Judaeorum (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews). However, originally it would have been spelled: IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM. Commas didn’t exist back then, neither did lower case letters, and the letter ‘U’ would have been written as ‘V’.

    I find it much easier to read a Latin text if it is transcribed according to the Latin alphabet as it existed for the past 900 years or so rather than the way it looked 2,000 years ago. I think Julius Caesar is a lot easier to understand than IVLIVS CAESAR.

  • Reading the Wikipedia page on Jupiter, it seems that even the name Jupiter was not a traditional classical Latin construct, but something that occurred as their language was ‘corrupted’ by external linguistic influences. But the days and feasts derive their names from Jove. It’s all so confusing. :)

  • Asterix

    The Lithuanians use numbers for days of the week, starting with Monday; e.g. pirmadienis = “first day”.

    The Lithuanian names for the months are more interesting and take the form of observed nature. For instance, July (this month) is Liepa = “Linden tree”, which flowers during midsummer. I like this system far better than using names of Roman emperors and gods.

    Of course, this system only reflects nature in Lithuania. To be relevant in the US, one might call July “Road Construction”…

  • IamSmartypants

    Late to the party here, but let me throw Japan into the mix. The months are easy – First month, second month, etc.

    The day names are more interesting. The first two are similar to the Germanic and ancient Greco-Roman conventions: Sun-day and Moon-day (dies Solis in Latin, hemera Heliou in ancient Greece). Then comes Fire-day, Water-day, Tree-day, Gold-day (was Friday also payday in Japan?) and finally Earth-day.

    More surprising to me is how ubiquitous the seven day week is in cultures across Eurasia. My guess is that it is due to the roughly 28 day lunar cycle breaking nicely into four 7-day weeks.

  • rmthunter

    Did a quick google and found this:

    It may be that the days of the week, although named in European languages for gods, ultimately came from the planets — and note that either the gods were named for planets, or the planets were named for gods. Not sure which.

    And in Lithuanian, the days of the week are numbers: first day, second day, third day, etc., not capitalized.

  • And a 10 day week… don’t give the corporations any more ideas to work us to death. :)

  • Tatts

    The Easter story is my favorite–when Jesus is crucified and buried, and 3 days later when they roll the stone away from the tomb if he sees his shadow we have 6 more weeks of winter. I’m on pins and needles each year awaiting the word.

    Of course, Easter takes its name from Oestra, Anglo-saxon goddess of the moon and fertility (after whom the estrus cycle and estrogen are named), and whose symbol was the white lily.

  • Phil

    Outlined above, in John’s article.

  • Monoceros Forth

    Don’t suppose we can give the French revolutionary calendar another go? They had the best names for the months.

  • OH I didn’t realize that with Portuguese

  • Ninong

    Giovedi in Italian, Jove’s day. I guess that takes care of Jupiter.

  • If you want to freak out, John, check out the days of the week and the months of the year in the Slavic languages. The Romans did not give them the names.
    Many years later, after I figured out the pattern to the calendar, it dawned on me that March must have been the first month of the year. When Julius Caesar revamped the calendar, he add the extra day every four years to February. Why February? Because it was the last month of the year!
    Then I saw the same pattern in the Hebrew calendar. It adds the extra month after Adar. Even though the year supposed begins in the fall, Adar is in the spring and Passover falls on the 14th of the “first month” of Nisan (as commanded in Exodus). So, Rosh Hashana should be at the beginning of Nisan in the spring.

  • Thursday in Latin is ‘dies Iovis’, which is Jupiter. Makes you wonder why we have such a hodgepodge, instead of just sticking with one language and/or mythos.

  • Indigo

    Fun, isn’t it? Today is Saturn’s Day. Saturn was the ancient ruler of the astrological month of Aquarius, now said to be ruled by Uranus which was not visible to the ancients because they did not have the telescope. And that opens another door entirely because each of the astrological months is also ruled by one of the planets. Then it gets complicated because, predictably, each of those deities should be venerated on its day as well as during it’s month. Honestly, we’d be better off just counting the days. Firstday, Seconday, Thirday, etc. Months, too, for that matter.

  • Indigo

    St. Peter was a bunny rabbit. It’s true, I saw it on South Park.

  • Zorba

    Pretty close to the way the Greeks do it, except for Friday. Very interesting. Thanks!

  • Zorba

    In Greek, the days of the week are:

    From Monday through Sunday. The first four are basically counting. Second, third, fourth, and fifth days (Monday through Thursday). The fifth day, Friday (“Paraskevi” In English) means “preparation,” as in, getting ready for Saturday. Saturday, Savvato in English, means “Sabbath,” similar to the Hebrew word. Sunday, “Kyrie” means the Lord’s day.

    Very interesting how we have gotten the names of the week- days. ;-)

  • Ninong

    What happened to poor Jupiter? It’s the brightest planet in the sky after Venus.

  • SomeYankInRio

    Though a romance language, Portuguese dispenses with most of this. Saturday, (sábado) is the sabath and Sunday (domingo) is the lords day – but it’s also the first day of the week. Monday to Friday are simply the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th days (segunda, terça, quarta, quinta, sexta)

  • Ninong

    It’s not surprising at all when you think about it. Just consider the origins of the English language (Anglo-Saxon-Germanic tribes) as compared to the origins of the romance languages (Latin). French, Spanish, Italian, Portugese, etc., are all based on Latin, so of course the names originated with the names of the Roman gods and emperors.

    January — Janus, Roman god of the door or gateway, (janua = door). January is the gateway to the year. Julius Caesar named it January when he devised the Julian calendar because he wanted it to be the gateway to the year.

    February — Februare = purification with water in Latin. Februalia was the Roman festival of purification. February is named after the purification festival which takes place around the ides of February (mid-February).

    March — Martius, named after Mars, the Roman god of war. This was the first month of the year before January and February were added. Originally the Roman calendar had only 10 months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November and December.

    April — Aprilis, the month of opening (opening of the flowers and trees in spring).

    May — Maius, possibly named after the goddess Maia, a daughter of Atlas.

    June — Junius, probably named after the goddess Juno.

    July — Previously Quintilis, the fifth month of the year before January and February were added. Caesar decided to name this one for himself.

    August — Previously Sextilis, Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius, named this one for himself after he declared himself Augustus. Caesar adopted him as his son and heir but he was biologically Caesar’s great-nephew (his mother was the daughter of Caesar’s sister, Julia).

    September, October, November, December — Seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth in Latin.

  • cole3244

    says the anonymous person with no name.

  • Bomer

    February-From the Latin februum (purification) from the Roman purification ritual Februa (Feb. 15) from the old Roman Calendar and was the last to be added to the Roman Calendar.

    April-derived from the Latin Aprilis and may have been in reference to Venus but the origins are unclear.

    May- Greek Goddess Maia mother of Hermes.

  • Phil

    Did you know that without a telescope (hadn’t been invented yet), these are the heavenly bodies that are visible in the sky, except for the stars? You can see a pattern. Below are the days of the week, with their English, French and Spanish names.

    Sun (Sunday), Moon (Monday, lundi, lunes), Mars (Tuesday, Mardi, Martes), Mercury (Wednesday, Mercredi, Miercoles), (Thursday is outlined above), Venus (Friday, Vendredi, Viernes), Saturn (Saturday, Samedi, Sabado)

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    A lot of us must have been born on the Sabbath.

  • Moderator3

    This does not add to the discussion.

  • cole3244

    old husbands tales last a long time.

  • mooresart

    Which brings to mind the old nursery rhyme:

    Monday’s child is fair of face,
    Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
    Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
    Thursday’s child has far to go,
    Friday’s child is loving and giving,
    Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
    But the child who is born on the Sabbath day
    is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

  • That’s like the old Playboy joke, “After 6 hours of sex, I’m thor too.”

  • 2patricius2

    And surprisingly, they were all hard boiled.

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    January – Janus (god of doorways)
    February – no idea
    March – Mars
    April – no idea
    May – no idea
    June – Juno
    July – Julius
    August – Augustus

    The rest are based on an older system:
    September – seventh
    October – eighth
    November – ninth
    December – tenth

  • 2patricius2

    When I first met a new next door neighbor on a Friday some years ago, he told me his name was Thor. I was tempted to joke that “yesterday was your day,” but I thought he might not understand my sense of humor.

  • UncleBucky

    AH! One more thing! Starting from at least the end of the Roman Republic, or even as far back to Classical Greece in Athens, what were the days of the week called then, and the months of the year? Likewise, for Germanic tribes (who were not as literate, but for whom we could use comparative literature or paleolinguistic techniques), what was it for them?

    And then, over the first, second, third, and subsequent centuries, as the year was finally established in about 6th century as A.D., how did the names of days and months and seasons evolve? :)

  • UncleBucky

    Com’on! We all know that teh Bunny left chocolate drops for the kiddies!

  • UncleBucky

    Well, we must emphasize to all the religous fanatics that they can’t use the Days of the Week and the Months of the Year, since they make reference to PAGAN or non-christianist concepts! And as we always say, various seasons of the year are also rooted in part or all in pagan festivals that the christianISTs repurposed for their own uses. Now, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do observe this principle to some degree, but I am not sure about days of the week and the months of the year. :)

  • UncleBucky

    Next week, Months of the Year! And Seasons of the Year (not just astronomical seasons, but like Christmas Season). Excellent!

  • Must have. Can’t think of any reason why we’d still be talking about it! :)

  • Are you implying that, when they rolled away the boulder from the tomb, a bunny hopped out leaving some eggs behind?

  • Jupsday has a nice ring to it. I like it!

  • It undoubtedly has its roots in Christianity absorbing pagan culture. The same way Christian feast days and holidays almost all just happen to fall on what were pagan holidays, celebrated for centuries earlier. And why we still venerate a rabbit and eggs, from the pagan fertility rites, on Easter. The Germanic peoples didn’t take conversion lightly, so still held onto the more convenient vestiges of their earlier faith, and the Christian overlords turned a blind eye to it, to stop the fighting. Eventually, it just became the norm.

  • That’s the thing, the pagan, or non Christian god, influence is fascinating for any west european christian culture

  • Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese make things a little easier, and can be translated literally as “first day”, “second day”, etc. But you can see the western influences in many modern variations. Look at the Greek for some interesting variations over time. Then the confusion over whether a culture believes the week starts on Sunday or Monday. Some even get more convoluted, like Russian where Monday translated literally means “day after Sunday”. It’s really quite interesting how so much pagan influence managed to be ingrained into the calendar, despite it basically being set by Christian influences. Even orthodox groups use a very pagan-based calendar.

  • Kes

    The Thor/Jupiter connection is probably that they’re both lightning deities. The Germanic tribes, in adopting the Roman 7-day week and naming conventions, must’ve figured Thor and Jupiter were close enough cognates. Not sure about the Odin/Mercury connection, but they’re both deities of poetry and prophecy (to a greater or lesser extent) so that may be why…and/or they may have considered it in poor taste to not include Odin in there -somewhere-.

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