How Did the Month of May Get Its Name?

If you frequent our posts, you may detect a common theme: behind the everyday nature of common words, surprising meaning and history often lurk. Case in point: this very month of May.

The fifth month of the Gregorian calendar, May, is named after a goddess named Maia. But which goddess named Maia? There are actually two. The Greek goddess Maia was one of the Pleiades, the companions of Artemis. This Maia was the mother of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. But the Romans had yet another goddess named Maia, who just happened to share a name with the Greek goddess. The Roman Maia was named for the Latin word for large, maius, and she was associated with growth and the spring. As the Romans adopted many elements of Greek culture, the two goddesses became conflated and gave their name to the fifth month.

However, there is another suggestion that the month is not named for these intertwined goddesses at all. The Latin poet Ovid claimed that the month may have been named after the Latin word maiores, “elders,” to juxtapose it to the month of June, which was named after iuniores, the Latin word for youth.

The month of May entered English from the Old French in the 1000s. In Old English, the month of May and “mother may I” could not be confused because there was another name for the month of May. Sadly, we lost the Old English word for the fifth month of the year: þrimilce. It literally meant “three milkings” because it was the only month of the year when cows could be milked three times per day. May’s confusion with may (the verb) is a small linguistic coincidence, not a meaningful overlap. The verb may came from the Old English word magan meaning “to be able.”

What do you think of the two Maias? Could you go back to using the Old English word instead?

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