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Ash “Wednesday,” “Lent,” and “February”: Surprising Word Origins

It’s easy to look at cities full of buildings from different eras, with old districts and even some exposed ruins, and in one glance peer back centuries and glimpse the origin of a place.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that you can get the same thrill just digging through words. And this time of year brings together three of my favorite artifacts of linguistic archaeology: “February,” “Lent,” and by association, “Easter.”

 

February

A weathered mural from the 2nd-century B.C. Roman Empire shows women preparing for cult rituals. (Photo by O. Luis Mazzatenta)
A weathered mural from the 2nd-century B.C. Roman Empire shows
women preparing for cult rituals. (Photo by O. Luis Mazzatenta)

The English names of the months famously come to us mostly from Latin, and some are pretty intuitive: June is for the goddess Juno, July and August for Julius and Augustus Caesar. Others are less obvious: January for Janus, the god of doorways and passages, March for Mars, the god of war. And some are confusing, the tenth through twelfth months being named for the numbers eight through ten, since the Roman new year began in March.

But among all this, “February” still sticks out as particularly strange.

First off, there’s the problem of the spelling: many simply pronounce it “Febuary” and so the first “r” seems to come out of nowhere. This though, is a common unconscious adaptation that the human brain and tongue are prone to make, much like saying “nucular” instead of “nuclear,” or children saying “aminal” for “animal.” Language is liquid and always changing, but you could argue that to be accurate, we should all actually pronounce “Feb-ru-ary.”

The reason for this spelling is the interesting part. February too, it turns out, is named for a Roman god, Februus, the god of “februa” or purification. Around the ides (the 15th day) of his month, ancient Romans and Etruscans would celebrate him with a festival of sacrifices and sin offerings. How strange and pagan and ancient! Except of course that to this day February also often marks the beginning of Lent, the Christian season of repentance and “giving things up.”

A world away, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, some Native American tribes called this time of the year the “Hunger Moon.” With winter stores running low, and spring’s bounty still weeks away, one can see why they’d choose that name. That lights a spark for me though, which makes me wonder if the voluntary sacrifices of our own time, or of urbanized Rome, were not in some way a deliberate preservation of the ancestral and natural forced austerity of late winter.

 

Lent

And that brings us back to Lent. At Christmas it’s easy to come by someone who will tell you that the season of Advent gets its name from Latin for “approaching” or “coming towards.” But at Lent, such facts are harder to come by.

The English word “Lent” traces back to Old Germanic words for “long” or “length.” Anyone who’s given up chocolate or snacks for the 40 days of the season might think this refers to the painful duration of 6 weeks of sacrifices, but the truth seems to be even more natural, basic, and ancient than that.

“Lenz” is the modern German word for the entire season of Spring, the period of the year in the Northern Hemisphere where the sun rises earlier and sets later, lengthening day and diminishing night. English seems to have taken this word for the whole season and applied it specifically to the religious season at the same time, much like it took the French word for cow, “boef,” and used it specifically in a culinary sense. So for all of its modern connotations of ashes and penitence, the linguistic heritage of “Lent” itself is simply a description of the effects of Earth’s tilt relative to the sun. Which brings us to Easter.

Sunrise lights up the Great Smoky Mountains, revealing its own layers of nature and human history. (Photo by David Alan Harvey)
Sunrise lights up the Great Smoky Mountains, in the leafy splendor of the already lengthened says of Spring. (Photo by David Alan Harvey)

 

Easter

“Easter” is of course the English word for the Christian feast of the resurrection of Jesus. It falls generally near the Jewish feast of “Pesach” or Passover, because Jesus’ famous “Last Supper” as described in the Gospels was a Passover meal.

Most other languages record this connection by deriving their name for the Christian feast from the Jewish: French “Pâques,” Spanish “Pascua,” Turkish “Paskalya.”

English however sticks with its Germanic roots and goes with “Easter,” referring simply to the direction of east, or perhaps an ancient deification and celebration of it. The eighth-century English monk Bede identified this deity as the goddess Oestre celebrated by pagan Anglo-Saxons at the Spring equinox. This is certainly the time of year to celebrate a goddess of east-ness, when no matter where you stand on the Earth, when the sun rises, it does so precisely due east. [Updated 2/13/2013]

 

Holy Wednesday!

Wednesday’s namesake is shown here in a 19th
century illustration. (Wikimedia Commons)

So there you have it. Roughly two-thirds of time, Ash Wednesday falls in February, marking the start of Lent and the approach of Easter. In that sentence, without getting on a plane, picking up a trowel, or pushing through any jungle underbrush, you can dig through history from English speakers of today, to ancient Rome, to prehistoric celebrations of the changing seasons, and to the very structure of the solar system.

And I almost forgot: Wednesday itself is of course named for Woden/Wotan/Odin the one-eyed, raven-toting, wolf-accompanied, berzerker leader of the Norse and German gods.

Linguistic archaeology! Tell your friends.

 

Learn More

Origins of Valentine’s Day

Winter Solstice Around the World

Oxford English Dictionary

Comments

  1. roma
    US
    March 9, 10:25 am

    Andrew, you failed miserably in your research & putting out the facts. What is it you’re wanting to accomplish here? Showing facts on the origins of these things or not? Either do thorough research & tell it all or stop pretending you’re helping people to learn the origins of such things. There is a whole lot of real info on the origins of these celebrations. They are from false gods, or those worshipped by “pagan” people, & the information is out there. Also, just for the record, there is one real God, Jehovah, & many imitators. Some of the fake ones, male & female, are these female goddesses; Easter or Oestre or Astarte…all the same goddess in different countries. And their worship involved degraded sexual practices, something condemned by Jehovah outright, & by his son who is shamed by having his name tied to them. I could write your article for you if you find it too difficult to do the research. Sorry, but you aren’t accomplishing any goal at all…unless it’s to put out inadequate and false information.

  2. Kevin Edwards
    Australia
    February 24, 2013, 7:26 pm

    no gods no religions, NO wars. Read the little book of truth, linked to (Burn & Bury For PEACE) STAY HAPPY.

  3. Kris
    February 13, 2013, 10:04 pm

    These are things that are not of God!!!!

  4. Bruno
    Oakland
    February 13, 2013, 10:22 am

    Good post.
    My wife points out that you do not mention that Easter is named after the Pagan goddess Eostre.

    • Andrew Howley
      February 13, 2013, 11:20 am

      Thanks Bruno. Your wife is right, I just simplified it to “direction of east and perhaps an ancient deification of it” since I didn’t have much to go on about Eostre outside of references to her name leading to Easter.

      Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary had to say about it, referring to the eighth-century English monk Bede:
      “Bede…derives the word < Eostre (a Northumbrian spelling; also Eastre in a variant reading), according to him, the name of a goddess whose festival was celebrated by the pagan Anglo-Saxons around the time of the vernal equinox (presumably in origin a goddess of the dawn, as the name is to be derived from the same Germanic base as east adv.).”

      I added a little bit above to flesh it out. Thanks!

  5. DCMontreal
    Montreal
    February 13, 2013, 10:00 am
  6. Ima Ryma
    February 13, 2013, 5:43 am

    February – pronounce the “ru.”
    Often left off in hurried speak,
    As human tongues are prone to do,
    Easy to twist tie tongue in cheek.
    Named for Februus, Roman god
    Of purification of sin,
    That yearly got stuck in the bod.
    A spring cleaning would be akin.
    Februus later changed his name
    To Pluto of the underworld.
    But February stayed the same.
    Plutoary never unfurled.

    February – shortest in day,
    But longest mispronounced to say.

  7. okeke simeon
    Nigeria
    February 13, 2013, 3:29 am

    I love lentin season,it makes me 2 be more closer 2 God

  8. Debbie
    February 13, 2013, 12:03 am

    I love everything about this post. We should all have such joy for our world and our history!