February

 

snow

 

 

February is from classical Latin Februārius, a noun use of the adjective in mēnsis Februārius (mēnsis = month).

This adjective is from the plural noun februa (singular februum), meaning means of purification, expiatory offerings. The Roman festival of purification and expiation was held on the 15th of this month.

The origin of februum is uncertain. Ancient authors considered it to be of Sabine origin, and some modern scholars accept this view. An alternative view derives the Latin word from the same base as ancient Greek θεῖον (theion), sulphur, which was used in purification.

Februālis, Febrūlis, and Februāta were surnames of Juno, who was worshipped at this festival. Februātus was the festival itself, and Februus a surname of Lupercus, who presided over this festival.

(Lupercus, from lupus, wolf, commonly identified with the Greek god Pan, was so called because he protected the flocks from wolves.)

 

From Greek theion, thio- is a formative element in names of things containing or connected with sulphur. For example, thiosulphate is a sulphate with one oxygen atom replaced by sulphur.

 

Expressions such as February fill-(the)-dike indicated the prevalence of rain or snow in this month. In A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave explained the French proverb Février le court pire de tous (literally February the short (is) the worst of all):

Because it is commonly the foulest; and thereupon we call it fill-dike.

This weather seems to be denoted by the Old English name of the month, Solmōnað, probably meaning mud month (also read The months in Old English).

However, this weather was necessary, as the following proverb indicates:

If in February there be no rain,
’Tis neither good for hay nor grain.

There is a similar proverb in A Collection of English proverbs (1678 edition) by John Ray:

All the moneths in the year curse a fair Februeer (All the months in the year curse a fair February).

Snow was preferable to rain, according to another proverb from the same book:

February fill dike, Be it black or be it white;
But if it be white, It’s the better to like.

The author explains:

Snow brings a double advantage: it not only preserves the corn from the bitterness of the frost and cold, but enriches the ground by reason of the nitrous salt which it is supposed to contain.

 

In Much Ado about Nothing (1598), Shakespeare makes Don Pedro use the expression February face:

Good morrow, Benedick. Why, what’s the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?

 

In the above-mentioned French-English dictionary, Randle Cotgrave also explained the following proverbs:

Aujourd’hui février demain chandelier (literally Today February tomorrow candlestick):

For Candlemas day is ever the second of February.

Toute chatte a son février (literally Every female cat has her February):

Every dog has his day (say we) or (more properly) every woman has her wanton fit.

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