Dear English-speaking friends! In case you ever wondered why Slavic names of months sound so different, you now have a chance to satisfy your curiosity.
As you know, English (as well as French, German, Italian, and Spanish…) names of months originate from Rome, with some variations. Slavic ones, however, have mostly agricultural or environmental origins. We will go through the whole year explaining the etymology of each month, both in the contemporary and historical versions. We will take the Polish names as the basis, referencing other languages where appropriate. You will also notice interesting shifts between similar month names in different languages.
Let’s start with January, which is styczeń now and formerly was known as prosiniec. Styk means “contact”, so it can be understood as one year touching another. It can be also derived from stygnąć (get colder) or studzić (cool something). Another explanation gives us an earlier form tyczeń coming from tyka, a wooden rod or pole, which was prepared during this time of the year. Prosiniec (Proschyen in the oldest written form), however, is similar to the names in other Slavic languages (prosinьcь in old Bulgarian, prosinec in Czech & Slovenian or prosinac in Serbian), and survived in Kashubian as sejac – glow from heat, which refers to the Sun which starts shining brighter and stronger in this month.
February is luty now, but it had been called sieczeń. Luty means “severe” or “aggressive”, and it appears also in other Slavic languages as well, usually to describe wild animals, such as wolves. Siecze means “he/she/it slashes” (verb), so can be understood as referring to piercing frosty wind. Both names are related to the fact that this month is usually the coldest one, therefore the hardest to survive, if your supplies are short.
March is now known as marzec, but used to be brzezień, a derivative of brzoza, a birch. Birch trees come to life as one of the first plants in the spring and secrete juice (just like maples), which contains a lot of minerals, so it is very healthy. The juice is collected before the twigs start budding.
The now kwiecień, April was previously known as łżykwiat or łżekwiat. In both cases, the name refers to flowers (kwiat), as in April nature awakes and starts blooming. The evolution of the name is interesting in this case. The old one meant literally “false flower”, whereas in the new one the “false” part had disappeared. According to folk saying the month is usually described as a capricious one, which is nicely reflected in the name.
May is maj now, but it used to be called trawień. It is also similar to the currently used Ukrainian traven’, and it refers to trawa, meaning grass (or herbs).
June is czerwiec today and used to be czerwień (with variations), so not much has changed. It refers to an insect called czerwiec polski (Polish cochineal or Polish carmine scales in English). The cochineal bug was collected during this month and used for the production of crimson dye, known as “Saint John’s blood” in English.
July’s modern name is lipiec, and the older forms were lipień and lipnik. The names refer to linden blossoms that abound in this month.
August is and was (mostly) called sierpień. It is one of the most important months for farmers—the time to reap crops. The name comes from the noun sierp, a sickle.
September is presently named wrzesień, and an older name was rujeń. Wrzesień refers to wrzos, the heather, which blooms during this time. Rujeń is way more interesting, however. Ruja means “heat”, the mating period, which is so true for deer and moose. Slavs used to live in forested lands, and it was important to distinguish and also be able to mimic the animal voices to set traps and hunt them. So, we can say that rujeń is the hunting month.
October is and was (mostly) październik (which is quite a complicated name to spell if you are not familiar with it), and it originated from paździerz. What does it mean? Let us take a step back and see ourselves in the reality of the Slavs (say, Polish folk people) of the 15th-19th centuries. We would have reaped our crops in August, and we hunted deer (if we were allowed) in September, so we have some food supplies and now we can improve our household a bit. And paździerz will come in handy because it signifies the stronger and thicker fibers of linen and hemp, which were used as a (cheap) substitute for wood. They are still used for construction for the same reason, and the word now informally refers to something cheap and not very solid (unlike wood).
November is and was known as listopad. It is a compound word which (almost?) every Slav will understand list or liść (a leave) and pad-, to fall.
December is called grudzień and the older form was studzień. This comes from the noun gruda, a lump of soil, which lumps now because of frost, whereas studzić, as we have said, means to cool something down.
This article will be yet enhanced with references to other Slavic languages, so you may want to revisit it once in a while. Meanwhile, you may want to order a Slavic Calendar for yourself. We have 5 versions – Polish (also for 2018, 2019, and 2022), English, Czech, Slovak, and Croatian. Check them all at https://kalendarzslowianski.pl/sklep/
Slavic Calendar 2023: Keepers of Tradition
Hanging calendar of format A3, fawn paper, English version (orders within Poland only).
Check all sheets at https://kalendarzslowianski.pl/slavic-calendar-2023/.
Please proceed to the form to order abroad.
The author used the below sources: