Saturday, February 3, 2007

Apple #221: February

So today is February 2. Groundhog Day, yes. And although I can't recommend the movie Groundhog Day highly enough (Bill Murray, I always like your characters better before they get reformed), I don't have any desire to investigate the history and oddity of this particular celebration. What I am more interested in is that oh-so-hard-to-say word, February.

Say "February" three times fast. See what I mean?

Punxsutawney Phil says, "I can't say it, either. Just let me go back to sleep."
(Photo from The Freeds blog)

So, yeah, I'm the guy coming up with the names for the months of the calendar, and I'm going to choose a word -- who knows what it means -- but I'm going to stick not one but two r's in the middle of it so that people can't pronounce it properly, and don't even want to try. Terrific idea, isn't it?

But seriously. What does February mean, anyway?

  • Apparently, the word February comes from the Latin word februum (yes, you pronounce both u's), which means "purification."
  • The second month of the year earned the epithet as "Month of Purification" because people used to have a purification ritual on February 15, by the Roman calendar. When we switched to the Gregorian calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII, who commissioned it), they kept the name February. Because they liked it so much.

Pope Gregory the XIII, looking a bit nervous. Could it be that he knew the word for the second month was a poor choice?
(Painting posted at

  • I'd like to point out that that root word februum accounts for only one, but not both r's. I am therefore now convinced that adding the second r must have been the work of some sneaky Roman person who wanted to make us all miserable. But perhaps this is appropriate, since February is, in my opinion, the worst month of the year.
  • I'd also like to point out that many dictionary pronunciation guides are noting the fact that most people don't pronounce the month Feb-ROO-ary, but actually pronounce it Feb-YOO-ary. They give a fancy linguistic name for this tendency and offer a few explanations for it, but the upshot is that even the dictionaries are saying, yes, it's too hard to say both r's and we don't really expect people to do that. So take THAT, Mr. FebROOary Month Maker!

We could always go back to some other words for the second month that have been used in the past. Here are some options:
  • The Anglo-Saxons used to call February Solmoneth ("mud month") or sometimes the name that Charlemagne used for it, Hornung
  • The Finns call February helmikuu, which means "month of the pearl"
  • The Old English called their second month "Sprote Kale Monath," or "Month when the Cabbage Sprouts." I think I'd vote for this one, though it is a bit lengthy.

Apparently, February used to be the month when you started counting the days until you got this -- a table full of cabbage
(Photo from the Milk and Honey Farm)

And finally,
  • I know you'll be excited to learn that February 22 -- which happens to have been George Washington's birthday -- was designated by the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts as Thinking Day. So be sure to save up your thinking for the 22nd, so you can celebrate to the fullest!

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, cited at, February
Biology, february, February and February 22
Edgar's Name Pages, Names of the Months, 2004
L.E. Doggett, Calendars (which uses information reprinted by permission from the Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac)
Web Exhibits, Calendars through the Ages

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