Where does January come from?

NOTE: The following post is not an opinion but a didactic post for students, previously published on Lamptēr Glossōn and republished here.


Numa Pompilius
Cour Carrée
Le Louvre, Paris

It is the first month of the year in the Gregorian calendar but it has not always been this way. The month of January was added to the Roman calendar during the reign of Numa Pompilius. But what does January actually mean? What is the root of its name?

The Roman god named Janus – sometimes spelled ‘Ianus’ because ancient spelling had no J and I back then, when pronounced as Y in English today, was finally spelled J in some words – is traditionally considered as a gatekeeper. He is one of the gods of time, and holds the key to the door between the past and the future. In representations, he is sitting on a throne, holding the key, and had two faces: an old man’s face symbolising the past, and a young man’s face representing the future year coming. His name is a cognate with the Latin word iānua which means ‘door’ or ‘gate’. And, you probably see it coming: the Latin adjective iānuārius was referring to moments or elements related to god Janus and the ‘door’ that he is keeping between the past year and the new year. The English word January directly originates from this adjective.

Here are some other cognates you might have heard about:

Janus

French janvier and Spanish enero have both the same origin, as for the English word. And they both refer to the first month of the year. If they look so different, it’s because of changes in local pronunciation over the centuries. For example, Spanish has lost the I and the U, and French has changed the U into a V. You might know about the city of Rio de Janeiro, which actually stands for ‘River of January’ in Portuguese. Now you know thanks to the word janeiro that Portuguese has kept the I – which became J – but lost the U.

Have you ever heard about the job of janitor in English? The Oxford definition for it is: ‘a person whose job is to take care of a building such as a school or an apartment building’. In other words: a caretaker who usually holds the keys of the doors to the building entrance.

For those who learned a bit of Latin, the verb īsīre which means ‘to go’, is ultimately related with the same Indo-European root as for Janus and iānua. And cognates go as far as Sanskrit yāna (meaning ‘vehicle’) since it is related with the idea of movement, as in Mahāyāna the ‘great vehicle’.

Now you know why the first month of the year is called like this, and each time you will enter a new year, you will know who is supposed to open the door.


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