Q&A: Where did day names come from?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, grab your calendars…

Q: Hi AWC, I’d like to take things day by day this week.

A: Please explain.

Q: I mean that I’d like to know WHY we have the seven names. In fact, why even have SEVEN days at all?

A: Okay, let’s tackle that last one. It was the ancient Babylonians who originally came up with the idea of a seven-day week.

Q: Probably while they were hanging their gardens…

A: Yeah, something like that. Anyway, seven was a big deal for them because there were seven ‘celestial bodies’ in the sky – the sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Seven days was also roughly one of the four phases of the moon.

Q: So everyone went with seven days?

A: Nope. The Egyptians liked 10-days. The Romans were fans of eight for a while, as it was the period between market days. But even they would eventually adopt the 7-day by the 4th century AD – taking their cue from Genesis.

Q: Ooooh, Land of Confusion or Invisible Touch?

A: No, not the 1980s music group. The first book of the Bible – that stated that “God made the universe in seven days”.

Q: Oh yeah, that makes more sense. I didn’t think Phil Collins was that old.

A: So anyway, shall we get onto the names?

Q: Yes please.

A: Once more, we have the Babylonians to thank for their obsession with things in the sky. Remember that for most ancient cultures, Earth was considered the centre of the solar system.

Q: Nobody puts Babylonian in a corner! Bahahaaa

A: Very clever. So, this love of all things celestial paved the way for Roman Emperor Constantine to officially adopt this new seven-day week in 321AD/CE leading to the modern English names we have today. Sunday was the first day of their week – and they called it “Dies Solis” after the brightest of the sky objects, the sun. 

Q: When did it become “Sunday”?

A: Well, if you lived in Rome, it NEVER “became” Sunday. But if you mean, when did English get ITS names, then we have the Germanic people to thank for that. 

Q: Of course that’s what I meant. 

A: Okay, well once the Germans finally adopted the Romans’ seven-day week, they got busy swapping out the Roman gods with Teutonic gods instead to come up with a new set of ‘weekday Avengers’, if you will. “Dies Solis” became “Sonntag” and we were off to the races.

Q: Actually, Saturday is more of a horse racing day. Or a Tuesday of course.

A: Thanks for that. Anyway, with this established, Old English later coughed up “sonnandæg” – day of the sun – which in Middle English would eventually become “sunedai”.

Q: I’d sooner die than call it “sunedai”!

A: If you keep interrupting with bad jokes, we’ll be here all week!

Q: Yes, that’s what I want – the whole week!

A: Okay, well it’s safe to assume a template from here on for most of these – in that the “day” part had a similar lineage. So let’s do Monday, yeah?

Q: It’s just one of those days…

A: It is indeed, and if Sunday was the day of the sun, then Monday is the day of…?

Q: Monotones?

A: Nope.

Q: Money?

A: No.

Q: Walter Mondale?

A: Who— okay, never mind. The MOON! 

Q: Oh, yep, that makes more sense.

A: It literally translates as “day of the moon” and came from the Middle English “monedai” and all those other languages before it. The Romans had named it after “Luna”.

Q: Because Monday is the best day to go to Luna Park – no queues on the rides!

A: Umm, no, but you go with that. By the way, modern International Standards mark Monday as the official first day of the week (ISO8601 to be exact), even though the Latins and Greeks had Sunday as day number one. Today, North America and Japan still go with Sunday as their start, so you’ll find some calendar grids that run Sunday to Saturday and others Monday to Sunday.

Q: I think calendars are almost extinct at this point.

A: Oh yeah?

Q: Totally – their days are numbered! Bahahaaaaa.

A: Groan. Okay, well with the first two out of the way, let’s look at Tuesday. Any ideas?

Q: Tacos?

A: No! We will admit it’s one of the trickier ones – cashing in on that Germanic mythology we talked about earlier and their sky god “Tyr” or “Tiwez” – linked to Mars. (The French call it “Mardi” and “Mardi Gras” was originally “Fat Tuesday” – the last day of rich eating before lent.) Old English adapted the Germanic into “Tiwesdæg” and the rest is etymology…

Q: Haha. Okay, that’s Tuesday. Choose another day.

A: Wednesday?

Q: Perfect! Now, let me see… named after Venus? Because it sounds a bit like Wednes?

A: Cute, but no. It’s named for the big-daddy Anglo-Saxon god “Woden” (sometimes called “Odin” in Norse) – literally “Woden’s Day”. The Latin name linked it to the planet (and god) “Mercury” – still easily seen in the French, Italian and Spanish names for this day – Mercredi, Mercoledi and Miércoles respectively.

Q: And Germany, let me guess, call it Wodenstag?

A: They DID until the 10th century, then got all fancy and changed it to “Mittwoch” – literally meaning “midweek”.

Q: Hump day!

A: Exactly. By the way, the term “hump day” was in use by 1957 – originally applying to any middle day of a short training course before being assigned specifically to Wednesday.

Q: Okay, Thursday – it’s hammer time, right?

A: You’re right. Thursday was indeed named for the Norse god Thor – the god of thunder and bad sequels. And if you’re still playing the celestial bodies game, the Romans linked this one to Jupiter.

Q: By Jove, so they did!

A: Exactly – Jove being the Roman sky god equivalent of the Greeks’ Zeus. And if you’re born under Jupiter’s influence, you’re “jovial” – good-natured. The term “by Jove” entered English in the 14th century, a variation of “my god!”

Q: Friday?

A: This is Nordic god Frigg’s day – usually considered to be Woden’s wife. It entered Old English as “frigedæg’.

Q: I think I had a frigedæg once – ice maker, excellent freezer compartment… But anyway, I always thought it was “Freyja’s day”…

A: Some languages go with this, but it’s actually rather contested in Germanic, which is how English came by the name. So Frigg it, we’re sticking with Frigg, even though Freyja is where we see the connection to Venus. It’s a bit messy.

Q: Thank two gods it’s Friday?

A: Haha. Exactly!

Q: And finally “Saturday” – well that’s clearly related to Saturn. 

A: Yep, it is. But unlike the rest, English decided to bypass the Germanic – which had taken its “Samstag” cues from the Greek “sambaton” relating to the sabbath. Instead, we went wholesale – taking it from the Latin “dies Saturni”. It’s also where we get the fun word “saturnine” from – meaning gloomy or sluggish, as back in those times, Saturn was the slow-rotating planet that was the furthest distance away. 

Q: We’ve done them all. Oh no! It’s the end of days!

A: Yes, we’ve done all seven, very good.

Q: Those were the days, my friend!

A: Okay, that’s enough now.

Q: Some might say that this conversation was interesting, but personally I found it rather ‘week’.

A: Please stop…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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