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 ninth through twelfth months being named for the numbers seven 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, 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 the 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

Human Journey

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.