The ancient Romans gave us an awful lot, including “October.” Of course they didn’t have that quite right at first, since their earliest calendar contained only 10 months. The first month they named “March” for the god of agriculture and war, Mars. “April” seems to have meant “opening,” as in the APERture of a camera, so-called for the advent of Spring. “May” and “June” honored Maia and Juno, goddesses of women, fertility, and child-bearing.
The remaining months they rather unimaginatively just counted off: Quinctilis and Sextilis, “fifth” and “sixth,” as in QUINtuplets and SEXtuplets, were later re-named July and August for Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Even after they finally got their astronomy straight and added January, for the two-faced god Janus, and February, for the purification rites they called februa, the conservative-minded Romans retained the old numerical labels September, for the seventh month, as in SEPTet, a seven-member band; October, eighth (month) as in OCTave (a range of eight musical notes); November, ninth as in NOVennial (something occurring every nine years); and December, 10th as in DECIMal and even DIME (a tenth of a dollar).
The Latin number octo (VIII, = V/5 + III/3 in Roman numerals, which derived from finger-counting) and classical Greek okto added several other words to our vocabulary. Although “eight” is not one of them, it does sound a bit like OCT- and OKT- because all three derive from a common source, the prehistoric tongue known as Indo-European. Actual derivatives include: OCTet, an eight-person musical group; OCTane, a hydrocarbon with eight carbon atoms; the name OCTavia; OCTagon, an eight-sided figure; OCTOgenarian, a person in her or his 80s, an age we may all hope to attain; and OCTOpus, that squiggly eight-footed sea critter. Some folks with enough Latin to be dangerous like to use “octopi” for the more proper plural “octopuses,” and that reminds me of the guy who walked into a bar and ordered a “martinus.” When the bartender asked, “Don’t you mean martini?” the fellow shot back, “If I’d wanted more than one I’d have said so!”
But on to OKTOBERFEST, a word compounded from Latin October and the noun festum, meaning “holiday” and source of FESTival, FESTive, FESTivity, and Seinfeld’s no-fuss FESTivus. The traditional fall beer-fest originated two centuries ago in Munich, Germany, not Rome. But Germania was long a part of the Roman Empire and many of the Roman soldiers stationed there, though accustomed to vinum/wine as their “drug of choice,” developed a taste for the brew locals called cerves(i)a (Spanish cerveza), which was similar to a draught from the province of Egypt known as zythum.
The Romans had several October festivals, including the Ludi Augustales or “Augustan Games,” held each October 3-12 to commemorate Augustus. Likewise, cities around the world and across the U.S. have held Oktoberfests for generations. On the Florida Panhandle, Apalachicola’s award-winning cervesarium (Latin for “brewery”), the Oyster City Brewing Company, is again partnering with popular watering-hole and music venue Bowery Station to sponsor their annual three-day event this October 6-8.
There’ll be beer and bands a’plenty, of course. But here it’s worth noting that Latin festum is also source of the word FEAST, and feasting in Apalach, as OCBC’s name implies, always means oysters. The town is world-famous for its bi-valves, and Americans are as crazy for them as the Romans were. The 1st-century emperor Vitellius is said to have downed a thousand ostrea at a single sitting.
With modern refrigeration techniques, we can now enjoy these succulent mollusks year-round, though there was once a time when folks advised eating them only in months containing an “R.” Doubtless the Romans had that in mind when they invented eight “R” months, four of them ending in “–ber,” which I like to imagine was an early spelling of “beer.” Maybe it’s time to lobby Congress for calendar reform with new Roman-style R-month names “Maybeer,” “Junobeer,” “Julibeer,” and, for a Germanic twist, “Augustbräu!”
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wilds Things Are,” ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.