Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.
Beware the ides of March!
Beware the ides of every other month, too. And the nones. And the calends. Actually, beware Roman calendars pretty much altogether. But beware the ides of March especially.
We generally think of ides as being a March thing, since Julius Caesar was stabbed on that day. But every month in the Roman calendar was marked by three days: calends, nones, ides. All the other days were counted in relation to them. But how they were counted serves as a reminder that things we take for granted as plain and obvious are actually not inevitable and have been done differently in other places and times.
The Roman calendar was originally a lunar calendar. A month started with the new moon. That was the calends (Latin kalendae), which appears to trace back to calare (“proclaim”). About a week later would be the half moon. That became the nones (Latin nonae), so called because it was the ninth day before the ides—which is to say, it was eight days before the ides. (Confused? We’ll get to that.) The third day of note was the full moon, which was the ides (Latin idus, from some Etruscan word). And then…apparently nothing of note between full and new moon.
The calendar came to be standardized and no longer attached to lunar cycles. In the eighth century BC the calendar of Romulus featured ten months of alternating lengths, 30 and 31 days: Martius (31), Aprilis (30), Maius (31), Iunius (30), Quintilis (31), Sextilis (30), September (30), October (31), November (30), December (30). Does that not add up? Well, the rest of the days of the year between December and Martius were just there, not part of any month. Kind of toss-away. Which is how we feel about them even still.
A few decades later Ianuarius (29 days) and Februarius (28) were added. Months with 30 days were trimmed back to 29. The whole year was 355 days long, so every now and then a whole extra month would be stuffed into the end of February (of all the times to have an extra month!). It took quite a long time for the exactly right number of days in a year to be sorted out. More than two millennia, actually.
With the fixing of the months, the specific positions of the nones and ides were set according to the length of the month. The ides fell on the thirteenth day of months with 29 days and the fifteenth day of months with 31 days. The calends was of course the first day of the month. The nones was the fifth or seventh day of the month, because it was nine days before the ides, counting the ides as the first day.
And, of course, counting backwards. Because that’s what they did. The day before the ides, nones, or calends was the pridie of that day—so March fourteenth was the pridie of the ides of March. And the day before that was the third day before the ides. The day before that was the fourth day before the ides. And so on. Everything was in countdown.
Which means that the entire second half of a month, after the ides, was numbered in reference to the calends of the next month. The day after the ides of March is the seventeenth day before the calends of April. That’s what it was called. They didn’t number forwards. There was no Martius twenty-fourth; it was the ninth day before the calends of Aprilis. But still part of the month of Martius. You may be beginning to think the dates were called ides, nones, and calends because people would say “Any idea where we are on the calendar?” “None.”
But hey, if you think that seems like something from Harry Potter, don’t forget that when they added an adjustment month of 22 days, they stuffed it in after the twenty-fourth day of February. Not the twenty-eighth. The twenty-fourth.
But if we just want to wave our hands and say, “Well, those Romans were crazy,” ask yourself this: would it seem crazy to start the new year right in the middle of a month? So that, say, the first 24 days of March were in one year and the last week was in the next? Because guess who did that.
Not the Romans. Nope.
OK, by “we” I mean western Europe, notably including England and its dominions — such as Canada. Of course, Canada wasn’t a country then and wouldn’t be for another 115 years.
That’s right, England marked the new year on March 25 until 1752 (meaning 1751 was a short year—but so was 1752: they cut out 11 days in September because of the necessary adjustment in the switch from Julian to Gregorian calendar…that’s a whole other article again!). Other countries switched over to January 1 sooner—Scotland in 1600, most of western Europe at various times in the 1500s. To be fair, the new year had in previous times been on January 1; it was switched to March 25 in the middle ages. Why March 25? It’s the feast of the Annunciation: the day marking Mary’s being told by the angel that she was pregnant with Jesus. Somehow that led to the conception that it would be a good day to start a new year…
So the ides (the fifteenth day) of March of 1599, when Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, would have been almost a year later than the twenty-fifth day of March of 1599…and would on the same day have been the ides of March of 1600 just across the border in Scotland. Beware—or be where—indeed!
James Harbeck is a web editor, print designer, and trained linguist. Read his blog at sesquiotic.wordpress.com and articles at TheWeek.com.
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