Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yay for the American Heritage English Dictionary

One of the reasons I love The American Heritage English Dictionary, Unabridged, is the extensive notes on word origins. This is from the entry on "Wednesday."
We say the names of the days of the week constantly, but for most of us they are nonsense syllables.

The seven-day system we use is based on the ancient astrological notion that the seven celestial bodies (the sun, the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn) revolving around stationary Earth influence what happens on it and that each of these celestial bodies controls the first hour of the day named after it.

This system was brought into Hellenistic Egypt from Mesopotamia, where astrology had been practiced for millenniums and where seven had always been a propitious number.

In A.D. 321 the Emperor Constantine the Great grafted this astrological system onto the Roman calendar, made the first day of this new week a day of rest and worship for all, and imposed the following sequence and names to the days of the week: DiEEs SOHlis, "Sun's Day"; DiEEs Lunae, "Moon's Day"; DiEEs Martis, "Mars's Day"; DiEEs MercuriI, "Mercury's Day"; DiEEs Iovis, "Jove's Day" or "Jupiter's Day"; DiEEs Veneris, "Venus's Day"; and DiEEs SaturnI, "Saturn's Day."

This new Roman system was adopted with modifications throughout most of western Europe: in the Germanic languages, such as Old English, the names of four of the Roman gods were converted into those of the corresponding Germanic gods.

Therefore in Old English we have the following names (with their Modern English developments): Sunnandaeg, Sunday; MOHnandaeg, Monday; TIwesdaeg, Tuesday (the god Tiu, like Mars, was a god of war); WOHdnesdaeg, Wednesday (the god Woden, like Mercury, was quick and eloquent); Thunresdaeg, Thursday (the god Thunor in Old English or Thor in Old Norse, like Jupiter, was lord of the sky; Old Norse ThOHrsdagr influenced the English form); FrIgedaeg, Friday (the goddess Frigg, like Venus, was the goddess of love); and Saeternesdaeg, Saturday.
Now you know. :)
Robert J. Sawyer online: