There are some folks (of whom I happen to be one) who have never quite adjusted to this whole President’s Day thing. It gives scant honor to our icons to a) combine their holidays as their birthdays are inconveniently close together, and b) make the new one movable just so everyone can have a long weekend. And I am just waiting for some idiot to propose we allow Christmas and New Year to float so they, too, always occur on Mondays.
But perhaps I am, as usual, a bit hard on the bureaucrats. The truth is that the odd nature of our planet excludes all sensible solutions. All our dates hop confusingly around the week. Consider that our solar year has the splendid length of (about) 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds, if you measure from one vernal equinox and the next. The “(about)” is used above as the earth’s year varies a bit due to the dynamics of all the planetary bodies in the solar system.
Where was I?
Oh, yes. So while one can sympathize with everyone who has tried to shoehorn a rational calendar into the solar year, it is obvious that our current wobbly system of erratic month lengths, unevenly cycling weeks, and leap years is pretty stupid.
But, oh, my friends, the others were all so much worse.
I’ve talked before about the various calendar reforms of Julian and Gregory and about how the Roman calendar had gotten so far out of joint by 45 B.C.E. (known as the “Year of Confusion”) that they had to add 80 days to that year to realign things.
I won’t go over it all again. Instead, let’s just look at the rational way the Romans handled the simple question of counting the days of the month. You know, for holidays, appointments, due dates and such. Granted, the Romans shared with us the curse of having months with an uneven number of days. The Republican calendar had Januarius 29, Februarius 28, Martius 31, Aprilis 29, Maius 31, Junius 29, Quinctilis 31, Sextilis 29, September 29, October 31, November 29, and December 29 – with the year originally starting in March; this explains why “December” means the tenth month. Still, they managed to come up with a solution that simply boggles.
First they established three milestones in each month: the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides. The Kalends was always first day of the month. Simple enough. But then those uneven months started confusing things. The Nones fell on the 7th day in March, May, July, and October; the 5th in the other months. The Ides fell on the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; the 13th in the other months.
[For those of you who remember enough Latin to know that Nones should mean something to do with “ninth” it’s because the Nones always fell on the ninth day before the Ides.]
You getting all this? Good. Because that is the end of the simple part.
You see, for some unexplained reason, the Romans liked to count backwards. If you asked a Roman when he would pay you, he might answer, “On the seventh day before the Ides.” So, if you happened to know what month it was and how many days it had, you could figure out when the Ides fell and count backwards to the day you’d be paid.
Still, that would be too easy. So instead, they abbreviated it. Our Roman would say something like, “VII Ides.” You, having been good in math class, would quickly figure out that this being March and the Ides falling on the 15th, you would be paid on the 8th.
Only you’d be wrong.
You see, they like to count backwards including the first day. So counting backwards seven days from the15th gets you to the 9th.
Got all this?
Okay. Only two more things to remember. First, that there was no such thing a “II Nones” or “II Ides.” Instead, they would say, “Pridie Kalends” or “Pridie Ides.” Pridie meaning “the day before.” Second, you have to remember is that if you are between the Kalends and the Nones, you date back from the Nones. If you are between the Nones and the Ides, you count backwards from the Ides. After the Ides, you count backwards from the Kalends of the next month.
There, now. Isn’t that easy? I had the (mis)fortune to have had four years of Latin in school and I still can’t understand how a people as sensible as the Romans put up with a lunatic system like that. But then, you can still find it being used all the way up to the Renaissance!
The point, of course, is that a completely illogical and inconvenient human system can persist for a very long time. Now let me offer one a bit closer to home. And I will confess right now that I think it at least as insane as the Roman calendar…so you can consider this a bit of a rant.
One of the things I had to get used to in Latin class, all those years ago, was it all took place in a city called Roma, which no longer existed. Over the centuries it had morphed itself into a modern Italian city called Rome.
Or so I thought. My map deceived me. Although the city called Roma has been in the same place and had the same name for about 2750 years or so, nationalistic British map makers of a couple of centuries ago insisted on calling it a name that sounded to them, well, less foreign. Apparently the habit passed into the cartographic gene pool, because American map makers still do the same thing.
At the time, I thought it an isolated oddity. It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered how universally wrong our maps are. Look. There isn’t a city in Italy called Rome, okay? It’s Roma. Likewise there are no cities in Europe called Munich or Vienna. They are München and Wien. And while we are about it, there is no city in Russia called Moscow. It’s Moskva.
This is not just an excuse for me to be pedantically accurate. Our world has become so small and those once so distant cities become so close that it simply doesn’t make sense to first learn the wrong names for places and then unlearn them. We’ve learned to call Beijing, the capital of China, “Beijing,” haven’t we?
And while we are about the occasional idiocies of inherited English usages and how to correct them, let me mention another little campaign of my own.
Do you remember in school how hard it was to keep all those kings and queens and emperors straight? Let’s see. How many Henrys were there? Well, there were eight Henrys of England, at least three Henrys of France, and there was a Henry VII of Germany, so I guess he had a few predecessors. And I think he also became Holy Roman Emperor, but God knows under which number. Let’s see, who else? Ah, yes. I’m forgetting the redoubtable Henry the Navigator of Portugal and his nominal kin. I never could keep them all straight and I doubt few who are non-professors can either.
The ironic part of it is that the whole confusion is quite artificial as most of the people involved never existed. There never was a king of France called Henry. They were all called Henri. There never was a Henry of Germany, either. They were all Heinrichs. And Henry the Navigator was, in fact, Henrique.
A simple correction could also be done to simplify that great cloud of Charleses who obscure European history. Granted, Charles in English looks a lot like Charles in French. But at least it would allow us to separate them from all those Carloses and Karls.
I would argue that not only would this make all those people a lot easier to memorize and keep straight, it would also be so much more accurate. The Henris were never (at least to their faces) called “Henry.” Yet the same people who today would courteously address the king of Spain as “Juan Carlos,” would call his great ancestor, the Armada king Filipe II, “Phillip II.”
Why do we do it?
Aside from some imaginary conspiracy to make history just as hard as we can make it, I can’t figure it out. I guess it is simply another example of the triumph of tradition over common sense. But it can be changed. We are gradually coming to accept that there never was anyone called Christopher Columbus, although there was a Cristobal Colón. But, maddeningly, we still teach our children about the help he got from two people who also never existed: King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They were actually called Fernan and Isabel.
So I say we should stop all this nonsense and call people by their real names. After all, we call our President “Dubya” don’t we?