Friday 14 May 2021

The Etymological Week


The week is a curious thing: the division of our lives into a revolving, unfinishing cycles of seven days. Especially as seven days bears no relation to anything at all. 

Some people, rather foolishly, think that seven days is a quarter of the lunar cycle: seven days from new moon to half full, another week to full, another week waning to half, and another week until it disappears. But there's a problem. This system is two days out. Four weeks is 28 days, and a lunar cycle lasts 30 days.

This means that the two systems go out of sync very quickly, and after only seven months they are as far as could possibly be. Time is a useful thing, because we use it. If I lend you some money and want it back after seven moons, we need to both agree on what that means. If one of us is counting 28 weeks and the other is watching the sky, there is liable to be a fight. 

Anyhow, I've been reading The Week: An essay on the origin and development of the seven-day cycle by F.H. Colson. It has been something of a revelation.

The week began with the Jews. Efforts to backdate it to Babylon are implausible, largely for the reasons given above. Whatever you may think of the first chapter of the book of Genesis (and opinions, I'm told, vary), the Jews had been resting every seventh day since at least the first half of the first millennium BC. And the Romans thought this was amazing, and weird and crazy.

The Romans looked at the Jews rather in the way that some modern Westerners look at Tibet or India. The Jews were eastern and mysterious and they had this mysterious ancient religion, which was really ancient, and probably contained some really profound kind of ancient wisdom that was really ancient.

So just as rich bored Londoners can suddenly get really keen on some ancient Tibetan practice as a bit of a fad, so the rich bored Roman could bore everybody at the dinner party about how he had taken up resting on the seventh day, and it had really grounded him, and you should try it yourself, because those Jews are just so, so ancient. And did you know they don't have statues of their god because it's a really spiritual religion?

Juvenal made fun of such people in his 14th Satire, although his main target was idle people who do things just because they're fashionable, and then get Much Too Into It. You start with the faddish Sabbath and the new-fangled seven-day week, and the you get carried away, and so do your children.

Some who have had a father who reveres the Sabbath, worship nothing but the clouds, and the divinity of the heavens, and see no difference between eating swine's flesh, from which their father abstained, and that of man; and in time they take to circumcision. Having been wont to flout the laws of Rome, they learn and practise and revere the Jewish law, and all that Moses committed to his secret tome, forbidding to point out the way to any not worshipping the same rites, and conducting none but the circumcised to the desired fountain. For all which the father was to blame, who gave up every seventh day to idleness, keeping it apart from all the concerns of life.

Resting every seven days is a gateway drug.

The important thing here is that the seven-day week spread through the Roman Empire before Christianity did. The Christians existed at the time, but they were still a tiny little sect. The Romans were still basically interested in pagan gods and astrology.

The Romans loved astrology and did everything according to the Seven Planets, which wandered across the sky. So far as the Roman were concerned there were the Fixed Stars (all those ones in the background that never move in relation to each other), and then there were seven things visible with the naked eye that wandered around. They were the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These were wandering stars and in Latin each one was a stella errans, but the Greeks were still around and still speaking Greek and the Greek for wanderers is planetes. Hence planet, which just means wanderer.

Pluto may not be a planet, but the sun is. 

So you've got the seven day week and seven planets so of course you put them together. Saturnday, Sunday, Moonday etc. That way you could have an Astrological Week, and if you were planning to start a war or fall in love you could find the Right Day To Do It. The full Latin week went like this:

Sunday = dies Solis = Sun/solar = Apollo

Monday = dies Lunae = Moon/lunar = changeable 

Tuesday = dies Martis = Mars/Martian = God of War = martial as in court martial

Wednesday = dies Mercurii = Mercury = mercurial, ephemeral

Thursday = dies Iovis = Jove/Jupiter = jovial

Friday = dies Veneris = Venus goddess of love = to venerate of love something/venereal disease

Saturday = dies Saturni = Saturn = unlucky/miserable/saturnine

The Romans loved their astrological week and even tried to apply it retrospectively to the Jews, who obviously didn't do anything on Saturday because Saturn was unlucky. You can still see the Tuesday to Friday gods in French and Spanish

Mardi Martes Mars

Mercredi Miercoles Mercury

Jeudi Jueves Jove

Vendredi Viernes Venus

And, weirdly enough, all the Roman names survive in Welsh: Dydd-sull, -llun, -marwth, -mercher, -iou, -gwener, -sadwrn.

When the Christians came along they obviously tried to Christianise things. Saturday was the sabbath and Sunday was the Lord's Day, thus the Spanish Sabado and Domingo. But the week spread much faster than Christianity did. It arrived in Northern Europe while they were still pagan. That's why in English (and German) the days were passed over to equivalent pagan gods. 

Mars was identified with the Germanic god Tyw (who's actually etymologically related to Zeus and Jove), hence Tuesday.

Mercury was identified with Wodin (whom you've heard of from the Vikings) hence Wednesday.

Thor and Jupiter were both Thunder-Gods, so Jove's Day became Thor's Day/Thursday in English. But in German they're more direct and just call it Donnerstag, which literally means Thunder Day

(That's the same Donner that you get in the reindeer names Donner and Blitzen, which mean thunder and lightning, which is why the German army's tactic of lightning warfare, was called the blitzkrieg, or just the blitz, which I like to think of as London being attacked by flying reindeer.)

Venus was identified with the female goddess Frigg, hence Friday.

The Northern Europeans didn't use the planets because they weren't into astrology, because it's much too cloudy round these parts. In England you can detect the sun occasionally, in Wales never. The other planets might as well not exist.

But the week was just popular. It spread northward even without planets to pull it there. It is strange to think that there is no seven-day week in Homer, nor in any of the Greek dramatists; and strange to think that this arbitrary seven day cycle has been running without pause for at least two and half thousand years, probably much longer. 

It is also strange to think that two thousand years ago people thought that there was a correct day of the week to be in love, as though from Saturday to Thursday you might be quite icy and indifferent and then suddenly perk up on the day of Venus. We moderns would never, ever have such a silly idea. 


  1. Great post! I've been dabbling with learning Cornish lately, and it was only
    when learning the names of the week that I noticed the English names follow a
    pattern. It wasn't something I'd really thought about before, but became obvious
    kwhen I realised the Cornish names used the names of the planets. I knew about
    Wednesday being Odin's day (thanks Neil Gaiman!), but it's good to understand
    where the other English names came from.

    Cornish is similar to Welsh (although we do see a little more of the planets,
    having slightly less cloud); the word for day is "dydh", pronounced somewhere
    between "dee-th" and "day-th". So in Cornish the days of the week are:

    Mon: dy' Lun (Moon)
    Tue: dy' Meurth (Mars)
    Wed: dy' Merher (Mercury)
    Thu: dy' Yow (Jupiter)
    Fri: dy' Gwener (Venus)
    Sat: dy' Sadorn (Saturn)
    Sun: dy' Sul (Sun)

  2. Robert Smith of the Cure obviously thought so!

  3. You're seriously trying to tell us it's not because we have fried fish and chips that day?!

  4. Late, late yestre'en I saw the new moon
    Wi'the old moon in his arm,
    And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
    We shall have a deadly storm.

  5. Very interesting. As a teenager, I had tried to think about the origins of the days of the week in Welsh, but this was the pre-Internet age and even reference books weren't so easy to get your hands on in public libraries in North Wales. Now it all makes sense and it has given me a bit of a kick today.

  6. In Russian the only conservative day names are saturday (суббота) and sunday (воскресенье - means resurrection or revival, something about god anyways, like in Spanish or Italian). The other days have no connection with gods or stars or anything like that:
    Monday - понедельник - the day after Sunday (the old name for Sunday was неделя, now неделя means 'week')
    Tuesday - вторник - 'the second day'
    Wednesday - среда - 'the middle day'
    Thursday - четверг - 'the forth day'
    Friday - пятница - 'the fifth day'

  7. Hi Mark
    I am in the process of reading Etymologicon. I came across something last week during a meeting with people from China, India, Mexico, and Florida. We all grunted the same way. I could communicate with everyone: Yes, no, questionable, maybe, (a few others,) and satisfaction without words. It made me wonder if there was a pre-word language we all hold onto deeply,
    or if it was a basis for the beginning of spoken words. could be a coincidence brough on by the tequila.
    Steve in Florida