I got interested in what a week is and where it comes from–more conceptually than linguistically, at first, but I ended up down a lovely etymological garden path regarding the days of the week, and I may never recover! Most of us share an ambient “oh, you know, Norse gods and stuff” understanding, and there is also “oh, you know, in Romance languages Monday is lun-something, and then it comes mar-something, mer- or mier-something, jo– or ju or jeu-something, v(i)en– something, sab-/sam-/sap– something and domin– something.” It hadn’t occurred to me that the two sets themselves would have connections, but they DO. And, there’s also one of those improbable links that give me so much joy, where a string of letters shows up in one context and also in a closely related context but totally without actual linguistic connection, and in this case it’s something I love in its own right: THE BATH. So brace thyself: reading all this may take a week in its own right.
Here’s “week” on it’s own:
I was surprised that it’s etymologically connected to “weak” and I like the reason; for more on that see week and weak but I will spoil it for you and announce it has to do with Proto-Indo-European root *weik- (4) “to bend, wind.” Also, wikipedia says it’s basically celestial insofar as it’s a fairly tidy quarter-division of a pretty-much-28-day lunar cycle. Good enough for me, conceptually.
Now for the garden path part! Here’s my oversimplified version, working backwards from the names we use: Our day names emerged from Old English, a Germanic language. The names for days in Germanic languages are connected to deities in Germanic religion(s), which map well but not exactly onto what we think of as Norse mythology (Germanic is earlier*). Germanic gods were “identified” (not exactly equivocated) with Roman gods, and god-name-days in Germanic languages are aligned to Roman gods for which the days were named in Latin (the Roman day-names came first). The days were named in Latin according to the names they had in Greek and the associations between Hellenistic and Roman gods. The Hellenistic names for days lived at the intersection of gods and What’s in the Sky, so the days are named for celestial beings, objects, and sometimes both. An example: Greek had ἡμέρα Ἀφροδίτης. hêméra Aphrodítês. So then Latin had dies Veneris (Venus’ Day–the being and the object). Then there was an association between Venus and…ok, here it’s complicated because there’s Frige (Anglo-Saxon), Freya, and Frigg (both Norse), and all are kind of associated with each other and with Venus-y elements. But basically, the association between these female deities led to Old English Frīġedæġ (Frigg’s or Frige’s Day) and now we have TGI Friday’s.
Ok! So what follows is a game I played to doodle-represent what connects the Germanic day-word we say now to its Romance-language source/analogue, because that’s the part that tickled me–that there’s been this undiscovered connection between chunks of information in my head. What this ISN’T is a thorough elucidation of all the ways different language families and the cultures they connect to have handled “the days of the week”–naming, function, etc. I think this is super interesting and as far as I can tell there is only one book about this (and it was HARD to find) so let’s all work together to get me the book deal for a new one!
While the week in Greek began with Sunday, I’m starting off with Monday, because it’s very straightforward:
Mon-& Lun- both = moon! This was the one where I just shake my head at not having realized this. What have I been DOING? Anyway, there are also some gems nearby in 1934 Websters: Mondayish is not a word we make up every week, it turns out (also note: 1934 entries for “fag” include nothing but references to weariness, service, drudgery; no overt heterosexism). Mondayland as a reference to feudal servitude is sad, but the term seems ready for reappropriation…psychological state a la Mondayish? Or more literal location of unwelcome obligations, like a mailbox/inbox full of bills? See also here for online etymology dictionary.
Also a pretty tidy one; you gotcher Roman god of war and you gotcher Germanic (Teutonic, in 1934) god of war, and so now we have Tuesday. More here.
Wednesday is the one that is the least tidy calque because it’s not super clear WTF Woden/Odin has to do with Mercury, except maybe that they are both PSYCHOPOMPS (and WHAT? this is the most amazing word ever and let’s quickly use it in new ways) and carry staffs as they pomp psyches and/or psychos all over town. I’m pretty sure that letting Wednesday be “Psychopomp Day, Whatever You’d Like That to Mean” is a good plan. More here!
For some reason 1934 is silent on the Latin source here, so: its iovis Dies, “Jupiter’s Day,” and that’s why the Romance ones tend to start with jov-, jeud-, etc. I love Thursday because not only do you get the good stuff in terms of an identification with Thor and Zeus/Jupiter and the thunder they all throw around, but some Germanic day-names are even just “Thunder Day” (i.e. donderstag in Dutch). More here.
We talked about Friday already, so now you just get to see what 1934 has to say, see my doodle where I decide it’s most interesting to just put Freya as the Venus equivalent (interpretatio Boddyana!) and go: “I knew I liked Fridays.” (Except for the totally oxymoronic abstinence part. And the hangings part).
Saving Saturday until the end, so…
It totally actually was about the Sun! I like this. And it came to be identified with the Christian God (hence all the domin– beginnings in Romance languages). More here.
Ok: SATURDAY. This was my cookie…because listen: basically, this went right from Greek to Roman to Old English with no stops for Germanic deities. So, it’s Saturn’s Day. But like Sunday got reworked to Christian God Day, Saturday got reworked to Sabbath Day, so you see sab-/sam-/sap- kicking off these days in Romance languages. Ok, sure, whatever! Here’s the part I love so much, and I will quote from the OnEtDict: “A homely ancient Nordic custom, however, seems to be preserved in Old Norse laugardagr, Danish lørdag, Swedish lördag “Saturday,” literally “bath day” (Old Norse laug “bath”). So Saturday corresponds to both Bath Day AND Sab-Bath Day, even though Sabbath and Bath have no connection at all (I checked).
*FYI: Sometimes “Norse Mythology/Religion” and “Germanic Mythology/Religion/Paganism” are totally equivocated, sometimes one is called a subset of the other, and I tried to sort it out and this was the best I could do without going back to school.