Hello and greetings from Omaha,
I am in town to visit my family for the first time in 17 months, and it is nice to be back. The drive in from Chicago was long and peaceful, with a lot of good birds. A great blue heron flew across the highway right in front of me. When I stopped for lunch in Iowa City, it was 60 and sunny and there were students and families everywhere. Probably it’s a little too crowded, a little too soon, though I admit it’s comforting to see a college town bustling again.
During most of the trip I listened to the wonderful History of English Podcast, which I can’t listen to when Ashley’s in the car because it’s too boring. “Boring” is in the eye of the beholder, of course, or in this case, in the ear. This is a history of the English language starting from its very beginnings in the Proto-Indo-European language in the third or fourth millennium B.C.E. It’s a very well-researched and thorough show. How thorough? The host has been producing episodes for eight years, and he has just now reached the year 1492. Meanwhile, I just made it out of B.C.E. after cranking through six episodes yesterday, so I’ve got a long way to go.
On the road, I can get lost in these episodes for hours, even though the guy’s voice is not the most captivating (he’s an estate attorney by profession). I did start to fade a little during a particularly long list of scientific and medical words that come to us from Greek, so I tore open a bag of baby carrots. Munching on fiber always gives me a second wind.
The long lists are an anomaly; normally he’s very good about weaving the etymology stuff into the narrative he’s telling. I learned a ton, way more than I can actually keep straight, and there’s one particularly good segment that I wanted to share about, which was an exploration of the origins of the English words for telling time. One mystery that this episode cleared up for me involves our names for the days of the week.
When I was learning Spanish in elementary school, I always wondered about common words that sounded nothing like the English words. Of course, there’s the somewhat discriminatory trope that Spanish words are just English words with -o or -a at the end, yet the fact is that because of shared Latin and Indo-European heritage, there really are a ton of words between the two languages that are cognate with each other, meaning that they derive from the same root.
The Spanish names for the 12 months track very closely with the English names. But the names for the seven days of the week are wildly different. I didn’t understand the idea of cognate words at the time I was learning these names, and now that I do, this explains why the names diverged—they must derive from different root words. It’s the same story for any words for the same thing that sound totally different in Spanish and English. It turns out, though, that this doesn’t explain everything—most of the days of the week aren’t cognates at all.
The month names in Spanish and English both come from Latin. Spanish is a direct descendent of Latin, but English descends from the old Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons. That language shares its common ancestor with Latin: Proto-Indo-European. Since Latin is a cousin of English, then, and since it had such a massive influence on Europe thanks to centuries of Roman hegemony, it’s not surprising that English would have so many words from Latin.
In Spanish, the day names come from Latin, too. Many of the ancient cultures, including the Romans, believed there were seven planets: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. When they adopted a seven-day week, they named the days after the planets. And in Latin, the planets were named after the Roman gods, so the day names followed suit.
Actually, the first two, the ones that we do not call planets today, were not named after gods. The name of the first day in Latin was sol dies, the Sun’s day. Since the Germanic tribes already had a word for sun, they just substituted that in.
The next day was the moon’s day, which in Latin was lunae dies, and in Spanish, lunes. The Germanic tribes also had their own word for the moon, which is where Monday comes from. (Of course, the Latin word eventually came into English, too, as the source of the word lunar.) So these words are not cognates, but they do represent different source words for the same things, the sun and the moon.
The rest of the days, however, were named after Roman gods and goddesses, and the Germanic tribes decided to rename these after their own gods.
The next day was named after the Roman god Mars, which is why it is called martes in Spanish and mardi in French. The Anglo-Saxons had a god named Tiu, the sky god, and thus we have Tuesday.
Wednesday was always an intriguing one for me, because in Spanish, that’s the “funny-sounding” miércoles. It makes sense now that I know the day was originally named for the god Mercury. The Germanic tribes renamed it after their god Wodin, calling it Wodin’s Day. Here you can see evidence of shared heritage with the Scandinavians, who also descend from the Germanic tribes and have the same god. It’s even more obvious with Thursday, which is Thor’s Day! In Spanish it’s jueves, which comes from Jupiter.
Then you have the day named after Venus, which is viernes in Spanish. The Germanic tribes also named this day after a goddess: Woden’s wife, Friga. Or possibly a related goddess, Freya (the two may have originally been the same entity). They chose to stick with Saturn for the final day, and so the names Saturday in English and sábado in Spanish are the only ones that are cognates.
These Germanic words are very old; we can tell because the other Germanic languages, like Icelandic and Swedish, have very similar names for their days of the week. It seems obvious in hindsight that Thursday would come from Thor, but I never really considered it. Maybe because the time of Thor seems so long ago. This is one of my favorites aspects of the podcast—it shows that the ancient past is not as distant from our times as we think.
That’s all I’ve got. Please take care, write back if you can—what’s your favorite word factoid?—and I’ll see you next week.
P.S. If you received this email from a friend, you can sign up here. You can also check out the archives.