The origin of the word January by English with Stephen

Word Stories: January

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode that looks at the history and meaning of the word ‘January’.

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Hello and welcome. My name’s Stephen Greene and this is the English with Stephen podcast. In fact, this is the first podcast episode of 2022. Regular listeners will realise that I took a break for a couple of weeks to recharge my batteries. But I am back now and raring to go.

Today, I have a word story for you. In word story episodes, I try to take one word and look at its history, its different meanings and how it can be used. Because we have just started a new year, and indeed and a new month, I thought I would look at the word ‘January’.

So, coming up after the break we will discover what ‘January’ means, why it is the first month of the year, and how it gave its name to one of the greatest cities in the world.

Be right back.

Before we look at the word story for the month of January, I’d like to ask a favour. I am trying to get as many people as possible to listen to this podcast to help them learn English, so I need your help. You can do this in one of three ways.

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And now, on to January.

Regular listeners to this podcast will not be surprised to learn that the origin of the word January is Latin. Originally, Ancient Rome only had 10 months, with winter being one long period of time without a name. The New Year started in March.

However, at some point, we are not exactly sure when, the Romans realised that it was crazy to have this period of time with no name, and so created January and February. January, or Janarius as the Romans called it, was named after the god Janus. Janus is the god of doors and windows, new beginnings, and transitions. He has two faces so that he can look into the future and into the past at the same time. By about 450 BC, or BCE, January had become the first month of the year.

The Anglo-Saxons, the people who spoke Old English, had a different name for January. They called it ‘wolf month’ because this was the month that starving wolves came to the villages looking for food. Indeed, the first full moon in January is still called the ‘wolf moon’ today.

I have to admit, I kind of understand where the Anglo Saxons were coming from and why the wolves would come to the villages.

As a kid, January was one of the worst months of the year. In England, it is cold, wet, and dark. The excitement of Christmas and the new year has gone and there is nothing to look forward to. You can’t play outside. You go back to school around January 6th and that is all you have to do. It really is a terrible month that could only be made worse by having wolves prowling around the streets.

Now, of course, I live in Brazil and January is the total opposite. January is one of the hottest months of the year. It is the summer and many people head to the beach for their holidays. However, as I look out of the window at the moment it seems to have more in common with the UK as the skies are grey and it is really quite cold.

This is a problem with the city I live in, Curitiba. It is famous for being the coldest major city in Brazil. Before I lived in Curitiba, I was in Rio de Janeiro for about 5 years. Now that is a hot city. During the month of January, the temperatures are regularly over 40 degrees.

Why am I telling you about this? Well, because an English translation of the name Rio de Janeiro would be The January River. The story behind this is that the explorer Amerigo Vespucci ‘discovered’ the area on January 1st. He obviously wasn’t very imaginative because he couldn’t think of any better names, and so he called it the January River, or Rio de Janeiro.

As well as not being very imaginative, he was also not so great with his geography either. The place that he thought was a river is not a river. In fact, it is a huge bay. How did this man manage to give his name to a whole continent if he couldn’t even figure out the difference between a bay and a river?

As well as giving his name to a month, and thus to one of my favourite cities in the world, it is also possible that the city of Genoa in Italy is named after Janus. The theory here is that Genoa also has two faces, one that looks to the sea and one that looks to the mountains. However, this theory is disputed with other people claiming the word Genoa originally meant ‘knee’. I know which one I prefer.

There is also a moon around Saturn that is called Janus, but some people prefer to call it Saturn X.

That’s about all I have for you on the month of January. Do you have a favourite month, or indeed a month that you hate the most? Let me know on my site I’d love to hear from you.

And please, don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on your favourite app. You can also leave a review and a rating of the podcast and, perhaps most importantly, tell a friend or post a link on social media. Let’s make 2022 a great year for learning English for everyone.

So long, and thanks for listening. I hope to speak to you again next week.

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