Why are there seven days in a week? And those names like Tuesday and Wednesday, with their funny spellings: where did they come from and what in the world do they mean? Your inner nerd wants to know. Last week it was the origin of the months, this week it’s days of the week.
The seven day week has been around for a long time, going back to Mesopotamia. Every once in awhile someone tries a different number of days—Julius Caesar thought that eight was better; the Soviet Union experimented with five and six; the early French Republic, when they weren’t busy lopping heads off, attempted to turn time into a rational decimal (ten-based) system, including the week. But over time the lucky number seven has stuck.
Why seven? One guess is that it’s because the naked eye can see seven heavenly bodies that mysteriously move out of sync with the stars. The astrological thinking was that the heavenly bodies governed time; and the Romans did name the days after the pagan gods who were associated with these heavenly bodies.
The seven Roman days of the week were, in Latin: dies lunae, the “day of the moon”; dies Martis, for Mars, the Roman god of war; dies Mercurii, for the wandering god Mercury; dies Jovis, for Jove, who was the big enchilada in the pantheon; dies Veneris, for Venus, the goddess of love; dies Saturnii, for the god of the harvest; and dies solis, the Sun god.
In Spanish, Monday through Friday are: lunes, martes, miercoles, jueves, and viernes. These resemble the Latin names because Spanish evolved from Latin, as did the other Romance languages. Spanish-speakers will notice that something funny happened to Saturday and Sunday. Saturn and Sun got dropped, and replaced with Sabado and Domingo. Sabado is from Sabbath, the origin of which is shabat, Hebrew for “to cease” because it’s a day of rest. Domingo is rooted in the Latin word for Lord, referring to Jesus Christ, as in “anno domini”, the year of our Lord.
But how about the English days of the week? The English calendar was adopted from the Roman calendar, but the Latin days of the week were transferred to the Anglo-Saxon equivalents. Dies solis became Sunnen daeg, or day of the Sun, shortened to Sunday. Dies lunii was transferred to monnen daeg, for moon day, now corrupted to Monday.
For Tuesday through Friday, the Anglo-Saxons preferred their own gods. So the Norse god of war, Tyr, substituted for Mars. Tyr lost a hand during a trick the gods were playing on Fenris, a monster wolf. So Tyr was known as one-handed, and not a reconciler of men—the gods of war seldom are. In Old English Tyr evolved to Tiw, so the day became Tiwsdaeg, which is now Tuesday.
The god Wodin was thought to resemble the wandering Mercury. Wodin was known as the god of the hunt, but he also ran a hall in which warriors slain in battle could carouse during the afterlife. Wodin travels the world in disguise, as an old man with a long white beard—sort of like a sad Santa Clause—and has lent his name to Wednesday.
You’ve surely seen Jupiter depicted as raining lightning bolts from the heavens to frighten we mortals. In Northern Europe, Thor had somewhat the same job. So Jupiter got swapped out for Thor, and we now we have Thorsdaeg, which we modern English speakers call Thursday.
The Germanic goddess of love, Frigg, took the place of Venus, so now we say “thank goddess it’s Friggdaeag”—or something like that. A painting shows Frigg spinning clouds, like cloth from cotton—a lovely thought. After three straight days named after masculine, war-related gods it’s nice to finish the work week with love. By the way, you might recognize the Germanic root “fri” in some other friendly English words, including friend and free. So we can remember Fridays with love, freedom and friendship—and happy hour.
Word Odyssey is a weekly column on words, their origins and the stories that go with them. It appears each Thursday on The Range.