I’m going to lean on my three years of high school Latin to answer this question. I really wanted to make sure I was profiled as a giant nerd during my formative teen years, so I took a class where we got extra credit for wearing a homemade toga to school for an entire day. Let’s just say I got my extra credit.
Picture this: you’re a Roman citizen in the 8th century B.C. For hundreds of years prior to your time, your pagan ancestors celebrated a crazy ritual called Lupercalia, a wild fertility festival in which local priests smeared with goats’ blood would run naked through the streets, striking any woman they passed. These run-by whippings were said to bring fertility to the women who got the privilege of receiving these blows from the nude priests. The whips, known as “februum,” literally meant “to purify,” after the ancient Roman god Februum.
Lupercalia later became known as “Februa,” the festival of purification. This was probably a result of a focus group who thought that the naked whippings with goats’ blood were not politically correct enough. Incidentally, this festival was later replaced by the Christian holiday we know as Valentine’s Day. The month in which the festival of Februa happened was named “Februarius.” Who knows? Perhaps this year’s Valentine’s Day should be renamed “Quarantine’s Day.”
What about the “ru” in “February”? Why don’t we pronounce it? The word looks like a mash-up between “Febreeze” and “Furby.” While I don’t claim to be a linguist, my research shows that the dropped “r” in the pronunciation of “February” is a result of dissimilation, or hapology. Dissimilation is when two similar neighboring sounds in a word become different over time.
Think about the word “surprise.” Over time, this word has become pronounced as “su-prise.” This is exactly what has happened with February: over the years, we’ve dropped the “ru,” now pronouncing the word as “Feb-you-ary.” Also, think about kids in school memorizing and reciting the twelve months of the year — it could be that we started to pronounce “February” the same as “January,” as February comes right after month number one.
For my money, the best holidays originate with naked ritual whippings. Forget “National Bike to Work Day”; if the holiday doesn’t have bizarre pagan roots, I’m not interested in celebrating it. For reference, check out the ancient festivals that were replaced with the Christian holidays of Christmas (Saturnalia) and Easter (Eostre). Our calendar and its holidays have a complicated and fascinating history.
Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.
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