Sunday, February 21, 2010

Etymology of Calendar

Etymology of Calendar

When reading a news story this morning about a dispute between Iran and the United Kingdom over an ancient artifact known as the Cyrus Cylinder (a stone document that appears to represent the first recorded human rights charter), I happened to notice how closely the words "calendar" and "cylinder" resembled one another. Given that the Cyrus Cylinder was engraved in an actual cylinder, I got to wondering whether this was just a coincidence or what. As it turns out, it depends on whose story you decide to take.

The history of the word in Origins, an etymological dictionary of English from Eric Partridge, seems to give credence to the notion that the two terms are very closely related. According to this particular etymology, "calendar" indeed shares its origins with the term "cylinder," both of which can be traced back the Greek kulinros/kulindein, "to roll," on back to the Sanskrit kundam, meaning a round container or a round whole, stemming from the IndoEuropean kel- "to curve or bend." However, there is no indication here as to just what was so cylindrical about calendars to explain what is going on here.

The more popular etymology of calendar pretty much shot my theory to bits. I don't have access to a proper Oxford dictionary today, but the general notes in my home dictionary and the basic etymology sites online all tell a very different story about the history of the term "calendar." In a nut shell, the consensus is that the word calendar derived from the protoindoeuropeansuarusrex kele- meaning to shout out. When debts were due at the beginning of every month, lender and accountants would call off the debts from their calendarium, or account book, which this history holds was named after the calling of debts to be reckoned. The first day of the month in the Roman calendar was called Kalendae, and it is generally assumed that the word "calendar" was eventually derived from the most important day that the calendar was used for: paying the bills.

However, I'm not entirely convinced that the etymology in Origins is wrong. For one thing, there is a very similar word "calender" that is used to name a machine that rolls smooth bounds of cloth or paper through the use of, you guessed it, cylinders. Next, all of the ancient calendars that I have been able to find information on where round in shape, from the Mayan calendar to the rocks on Stone Henge. This is pure conjecture, but it seems more likely that day Kalendae would refer to when the monthly cycle was renewed than the other way around. If this is the case, Kalendae would seem to fit right in with the etymology of cylinder discussed above. If this is true, I think that it would be safe to say that the generally accepted etymology about solemn announcement of monthly debts.

I'm tempted to keep belaboring this point because, well, I'm right, damn it. Instead, though, I'll just say that this is an excellent example of how open ended etymology really. Many of the word origins indicated in general reference texts are based as much on folk wisdom than scholarly research. The words we used today may have been passed down to us through the centuries, but their histories have almost been obscured along the way. As a result, nearly every word in our language carries a hidden and half forgotten story of who we were and where we've come from

and scene.

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