You know it as the shortest month of the year–or, depending on where you live, the coldest. But do you know where the name February came from?
When in Rome
Well, first: some calendar-related history. The original Roman calendar only had ten months, because, curiously, the Romans didn’t demarcate winter. Sometimes we wish we could do the same. In the 700s BC, the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, changed that, adding January and February to the end of the calendar in order to conform to how long it actually takes the Earth to go around the Sun. The two new months were both originally 28 days long. It is lost to history why January acquired more days, though there are various unverifiable hypotheses. At that time, March 1 became New Year’s Day, but later, in 153 BC, the beginning of the year was moved to January 1.
The Month Formerly Known As
Before we adopted the Latin name for our second month, Old English used much more vibrant names to describe The Month Now Known As February. The most common Old English name was Solmonath, which literally means “mud month.” It is pretty clear what they were describing. A lesser-used term was Kale-monath, which meant “cabbage month.” We can imagine that the medieval English were eating a lot of cabbage in February.
Cleanliness is Godliness
Since other months, like January, are named after Roman gods, you’d be forgiven for thinking February was named after the Roman god Februus. But the word February comes from the Roman festival of purification called Februa, during which people were ritually washed. In this case, the god was named after the festival, not the other way around. Must have been a pretty good festival.