Mark Twain once wrote: “This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.” Twain’s referring to the first day of April or, as it’s often known, April Fools’ Day. While the first day of the fourth month of the year is sure to bring plenty of shenanigans (will you be the perpetrator or the victim?), what isn’t so certain is where the month’s name originated.
Before we get to the rest of April, make sure you know about the classic “there’s-a-fish-on-your-back” prank.
April goes way back. Before January and February were added to the end of the year by King Numa Pompilius around 700 BC, April was already the second month of the Roman calendar year (March was the first). Around 450 BC, April was rearranged into the fourth slot, and was assigned 29 days. With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar by Pope Gregory XIIII in 1582, an extra day was added, and even though it took Mother Goose awhile to standardize the rhyme, we’ve been able to count on “30 days hath April” ever since.
But being confident about the origin of a word that’s been around since before 700 BC isn’t so simple. There are a few common theories behind April’s naming. One is that the name is rooted in the Latin Aprilis which is derived from the Latin aperire meaning “to open” – which could be a reference to the opening or blossoming of flowers and trees, a common occurrence throughout the month of April in the northern hemisphere. Another theory holds that since months are often named for gods and goddess, and since Aphrilis is derived from the Greek “Aphrodite,” one can conclude that the month was named for the Greek goddess of love (the goddess that the Romans called Venus)! Even now, April is a popular name.
And as if it weren’t enough to have it’s own mystery, April also adds to another origination story. Around the 5th century AD, the Anglo-Saxons referred to April as Oster-monath or Eostre-monath, a reference to the goddess Eostre, whose feast was celebrated during the month. The Venerable Bede, a monk from the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter, believed this gave root to the word Easter – which is most often observed during the month of April.
April’s derivation will remain a story full of maybes, but we don’t see this month going anywhere soon. What do you think linguists will be discussing when April is 3000 years old?