May may seem like a little simple name, but its origin is actually fairly complex and interesting. Sit back and read up on this little word’s … big history.
What does May mean?
The fifth month of the Gregorian calendar, May, is defined as “the fifth month of the year, containing 31 days.” Got it. But where did this name come from?
The name for the month of May—along with the rest of the months of the year—comes from Latin. We can thank the Romans, from emperors to popes, for instituting the modern calendar.
May entered English in the 1050s. It developed from the Old English Maius, borrowed directly from the Latin Maius, short for Maius mēnsis, “Maia’s month.” But who is this Maia?
The Greek goddess Maia was one of the Pleiades, the companions of Artemis, goddess of the hunt. 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 Greek goddess became conflated with the Roman Maia Majesta, a goddess of fertility and spring—appropriate for the growth and increase we see in the month of May.
Want to dig a little deeper? The Greek name Maia comes from a root meaning “mother, nurse, midwife.” The Roman Maia appears to be related to magnus, meaning “great” and source of such words as magnify.
May vs. may
That there is a month, May, and an auxiliary verb, may, is a small linguistic coincidence, not a meaningful overlap. The verb may came from the Old English mæg, ultimately related to a Germanic root meaning “to be able, to be strong, to have power.”
Fun fact: a native Old English name for the fifth month of the year was þrimilce. It literally meant “three milkings,” apparently because it was touted that the cows were so productive in ancient England that they could be milked three times per day.
More fun facts about May
When you think of May, you may think of flowers, spring, and great weather. But here are some more fun facts about the month of May.
- Taurus season ends and Gemini season begins in May—usually around May 21.
- May is one of seven months that have 31 days.
- The proverb April showers bring May flowers dates back to at least the 1500s!
- May 4 is a day Star Wars fans tend to celebrate. Click here to see why.
- Cinco de Mayo is May 5. However, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Learn more about that here.