What is hidden in October’s name?
The name of the tenth month seems to begin with sounds similar to “eight” in many languages. Why is that?
The wrong numbers (and the origin of eight)
The months from January to August are unsurprisingly named after gods, emperors and other Roman words. The last four months of the year have names based on numbers: September, October, November and December. If you know your Latin, you can recognise the numbers seven, eight, nine, ten... But shouldn't it be nine, ten, eleven, twelve? Why does the ninth month begin with seven?
For a long time, the year began in March, there at the beginning of spring, which makes perfect sense. Only around the 5th century BCE, with the creation of the months of January and February, did we settle on 1 January as the New Year. The names of the months, however, remained the same. Thus, October became the tenth month, but kept a proud eight in its name.
While we're on the subject of eight (although apropos of the tenth month), we can take a leap to an even more distant past. The name of the number came from the Proto-Indo-European "*oḱtṓw", which gave rise to the name of the same number in languages as far away as Portuguese, English, Greek, Russian, Persian — and many more. That ancient word meant "twice four fingers" (it was technically not the plural, but rather the dual of "four fingers").
Eight and night
Many note that there is some similarity (though sometimes a bit forced) between the word for "eight" and "night" in many languages: "eight"/"night", "ocho"/"noche", "nuit"/"huit", "oito"/"noite"... Is there a hidden connection here? The connection is just a coincidence in Proto-Indo-European, where the two words were fortuitously very similar. When they were split into other words in the various rivers and streams that are the languages that grew out of Proto-Indo-European, this pair of words kept their similarity, even though the various pairs became very far apart.
The history of languages and of everything human is a mix between order and disorder. We find glimmers of logic at one point, only to see how messy everything is right next to it. This happens in languages and many other human systems. For example, the first day of the year: yes, the Romans, even before the first century of our era, had already decided that it would be 1 January. But during the Middle Ages, in many parts of Europe, other dates were used. One of the favourites was 25 March. The Gregorian Calendar, which we use today, ensured that the beginning of the year stuck to 1 January.
George Washington and English taxes
We still find, however, some remnants of the year beginning on 25 March. The day George Washington was born was, for his contemporaries, 11 February 1731 — and February was the penultimate month of the year. The new year was celebrated, in England and the colonies, on 25 March (in many Catholic countries, 1 January had long since been the first day of the year). Years later, England accepted the Gregorian Calendar, removing 11 days from the calendar and changing the beginning of the year to 1 January. The result? Today, George Washington's birthday is on the books as having occurred on 22 February 1732 — but in older works, we still find the old date. Another remnant of the old English-style New Year: the English changed the calendar year, but forgot to change the tax year, which still begins on 6 April (25 March in the old 11-day-off calendar).
The calendar is a mixture of exact mathematics and bits of ancient words, of numbers and names that, at the same time, attempt to describe the apparent order with which the stars travel across our sky, marking the rhythm of hours, days, years. There are no perfect calendars — just as there are no perfect grammars or perfect ways of describing the world. The tension between our attempts to order the systems we use (the calendar, language...) and our simultaneous propensity to escape that order, in a mess that make our hearts beat faster — that tension is what makes language and everything human so very, very interesting and that's why I smile when I remember that our tenth month has an eight in its name.
I’d like to thank Jennifer King, my colleague at Eurologos-Portugal, for proofreading the text.