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July 30, 2011

Like gods on the heptagram, so are the days of our week


Daily Star

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On this last Saturday in July, I am gazing at the calendar above my desk and wondering how it is possible that in two days I will have to flip the page to August (wasn't it just the Fourth of July??). My mind wanders as I stare up at the neatly organized rows of numbers. Precise columns are headed by seven of the most familiar and functional words in the English language: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday ...

I lapse into rhyme-mode and start reciting to myself, "Monday's child is fair of face, / Tuesday's child is full of grace. / Wednesday's child is full of woe, / Thursday's child has far to go. / Friday's child is loving and giving, / Saturday's child works hard for a living. / But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day / Is bonny and blithe and good and gay."

I've heard that old verse a thousand times and never really gave it much thought, but now the words are getting under my skin, and the more I run them through my mind, the more absurd they become. It's like nursery rhyme astrology. Let's see, I was born on a Friday. That makes me loving and giving. It was the 18th of June, so I'm a Gemini. That makes me independent, indecisive and intellectual. It was 1954, the Year of the Horse, so that makes me a bit selfish -- hey, what happened to loving and giving? -- but it also makes me a hard worker -- no, wait, that means I should have been born on Saturday. Don't worry, I'll get all the details hammered out and check the phases of the moon and the alignment of the planets, and if all else fails, I'll consult a Chinese fortune cookie -- but only on a day with an "r" in it.

Laugh if you will, but our calendars would not exist as we know them were it not for our ancestors' mythology-driven views of the universe.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the English names of Sunday, Monday, etc., belong to a seven-day astrological week, which arose from the practice of naming each 24-hour day for the planet that supposedly rules the day's first hour. The Latin planetary names that honor the Roman gods (Dies Solis, Dies Lunae, Dies Martis, etc.) came into common use in the Roman Empire and were later adopted in translated form by the English and other Germanic peoples.

Sunday and Monday, you can probably guess, are from the Old English for "day of the sun" and "day of the moon." The next day's linguistic path is not as direct, as its planetary association is with Mars, the Roman god that the Scandinavians knew as Tyr. In Old English, the "day of Tyr" was translated to "Tiwesdaeg," which became Tuesday. Wednesday (still a pretty odd word) evolved from the Old English for "day of Odin," the Germanic god associated with the Romans' Mercury.

Thursday is from the Old English for "day of thunder," translated from the Latin for "day of Jupiter" (the Roman god of thunder). Friday is the Old English salute to the Germanic goddess Frigga (whose Roman counterpart is Venus), and Saturday rounds out the week with a planetary connection of more obvious roots: the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn.

I'd like to think I'm wholly disconnected from the paganism of mythology and the counterscience of astrology, but there's a calendar right above my desk that tells me otherwise. What can I say? It's Saturday. So, enjoy the day, and may Saturn be with you.

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Ox ford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? Email languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.