February facts: Pure and simple

by Mellissa Martinez

Many consider February to be a time for warm fires, chocolates, love proclamations and romance. This month is so synonymous with amour that it’s hard to imagine hunkering down for a long Valentine’s weekend of rigorous spring-cleaning. What about bathing under a torrent of rain or praying for atonement the entire month? If you are a word-lover who is also a purist, forget the chocolate, burn those roses and wash away any romantic notions February is all about purification.

The word ‘February’ came to English in the late 14th century from the Latin februarius mensis, ‘month of purification.’ Although some say that the Latin word februarius derived its name from Februus, the Roman god of purification, this is probably not the case. Most scholars believe that both the god and the month were named in honor of februa, the ritual purification rites that occurred at the end of the year. In other words, the purification rites came before the month and the deity.

So where did the word februa come from? Although its pre-Latin origin is not known definitively, most linguists think that it was a Sabine word. The Sabines were an Italic tribe that lived in the region now known as southern Italy along with the Greeks, Samnites, Etruscans and other tribes. They celebrated the februa rites of purification along with the Etruscans, who eventually passed the custom on to the Romans. The Sabine tribes are also credited with passing the rites of augury and auspices (omens from the flights of birds) to the Romans.

Unfortunately, there is little record of the Sabine language and it is suspected that only 100 or so words with Sabine roots survived. Along with februa, others that passed into Latin are multa, ‘a money penalty,’ albus, ‘white’ and imperator, ‘commander.’ These eventually became the modern Spanish multa ‘fine,’ and English ‘albino,’ ‘auburn’ and ‘imperative.’ Lesser-known Sabine words like hirpus, ‘wolf,’ curis, ‘spear’ and teba, ‘hill,’ faded out as the language was taken over by Latin.

When Rome was founded in the mid-700s BCE, the Sabine tribe became divided—half were incorporated by force and the other half fled to the mountains. This is described in the legendary episode referred to as “The Rape of the Sabine Women.”

At the time, Latin raptio defined the common practice of ‘capturing citizens during war, especially women, by force.’ The word did not have the sexual connotation that its descendent ‘rape’ now carries. Other related words like ‘ravish,’ ‘rapture’ and ‘raptor’ still carry the connotation of seizing violently.

In the case of the Sabine women, it is believed that many were seized and later begged by Roman men to marry them. These brides grew to love their husbands and became famous for throwing themselves and their children between their fighting husbands and fathers to end the war.

Roman culture was greatly influenced by the language, culture and traditions of their now incorporated former enemies. Among other things, they began practicing the end-of-the-year traditions of februa by cleansing in the rain, purging the home, praying for atonement and participating in the purification festival before the new year.

At the time, the Roman calendar was relatively new and still had some kinks. In this 10-month lunar calendar, the first month was Martius, now March, and the last month was December. Between the end of the year and the beginning, there were 61 winter days that were simply not accounted for. They existed, but they were not recognized on the calendar.

Although these days were nameless, they were full of festivities—people were busy purifying! It was one of the earliest Roman rulers, Numa Pompilius, who finally decided to give the days a name. He divided them in half and called them februarius and Ianuarius in that order. Februarius was named for already adopted rite and Ianuarius honored Janus, the dual-faced god of beginnings and passages. Later in 450 BCE, January was moved in front of February, but the Romans didn’t consider January to be the first month of the year until 150 BCE.

The word februarius remained prominent through all of the subsequent calendar changes and is used today in many languages including Spanish and Italian, febbraio, Afrikaans Februairie, Arabic fibrayir, Danish februar, Dutch februari, German Februar, Greek Febrouarios, Hebrew febru’ar, Indonesian Februari and many more. The Roman god of purification was called Februus and he later became Febris, the goddess of fever, who protected people from malaria.

Although February purification rites have been replaced by candlelight dinners, sweet nothings and gift giving, they can still have an influence on us today. I’m not suggesting that we stand in the pouring rain or spend the day scouring the toilet, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take a lesson from history and get a jumpstart on spring-cleaning—March is just around the corner.



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