A month by any other name


WITH the arrival of October, the year has entered the beginnings of old age. And yet, symbol of senility or not, the current month has proved itself remarkably resilient by stubbornly resisting over the centuries a myriad of attempts to change its name.

Although it is the 10th month of our year, October has retained the misleading Roman designator "Number Eight". September, November and December, being numbers seven, nine and 10 respectively, are similarly disadvantaged, and recall the old Roman practice of beginning every year with March.

The first official attempt to change October's name was by the Roman Emperor Domitian. No doubt conscious that his predecessors, Augustus and Julius Caesar, had months named in their honour. Domitian tried to sequester October for himself late in the first century AD, he changed it to Domitianus, although the change did not long survive his death in AD 96. Then, 40 year later, the Emperor Antonius Pius tried a more subtle approach he renamed the month Faustinus after his wife, Faustina. And towards the end of the second century AD October was again renamed Invictus, "the unconquered", this time the allusion being, we are told to the athletic prowess of the new emperor, Commodus.

Numerically, the Scandinavians got it right. They called October Teomonath the 10th month. The Anglo Saxons during the Dark Ages, on the other hand, called October Winter fylleth, "winter full moon", from the supposed beginning of winter with the full moon in October. Alternatively, they called it Win Monath, the month for making wine, and so indeed did the French revolutionaries when they concocted their Republican Calendar in 1792. The period from September 22nd to October 21st was known as Vendemiaire the time of vintage.

But to us, October, good or ill, is still October, and its weather brings a turning of the year. It is colder, wetter, darker and windier than its predecessors, and a stern reminder to us of the rigours of returning winter. And yet it sometimes has a gentler side. Now and then towards the end of October, or during the first week or so of November, there occurs a spell of quiet, hazy, unseasonably warm weather a so called "Indian Summer", whose spirit the American writer Henry Adams captured by inverting, more or less, our opening metaphor. "The Indian Summer of life should be a little sunny and a little sad, and infinite in wealth and depth of tone just like the season.