Today is Saturday, the day when in normal times we would be thinking of taking a trip somewhere, whether out of town or to some interesting area within Greater London. That is not possible at present and we must find other ways of entertaining ourselves.
Thinking about Saturday, and its name, brought to mind its French equivalent samedi and the fact that while the names of the months are similar in both languages, the names of the days of the week are different. There was only one way to proceed: by looking up the etymology of these words!
I will look at the name of Saturday today and deal with the others later. In the meantime, here is a list of the days of the week in English and French.
The first thing the English learner of French notices is that whereas Englsih spells the names of the days of the week each with a capital letter, French eschews capitals, treating the day names like any other common nouns. As far as I can tell, however, this is merely a cosmetic difference without any deep significance. In this context, we might remark that while English capitalizes adjectives of nationality such as British, French , German, etc., French spells them with lower case intials, e.g. britannique, français, alemand, etc.
The English name Saturday derives from the Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) Sæternes dæg. The first is the genitive (possessive case) of Sætern, the name of the planet Saturn, while the second is the ancestor of our word “day”.
Saturday is, then, “the day of the planet Saturn”. That may seem obvious but it is a little odd. Two other days of the week celebrate the sun and the moon, respectively, and the remaining four days of the week refer to gods or goddesses. The sun and the moon are very noticeable residents of the sky, and acquired the status of god or goddess in most cultures, whereas the planet Saturn is a relatively obscure object. How did it come to occupy a place among the days of the week?
In Roman religious mythology, however, Saturnus was a god, in fact the god of sowing seed, so perhaps this feeling of its godlike nature somehow moved with the name into the language of the Anglo-Saxons and secured it the place that it has occupied ever since.
In French, as we shall see, some of the planets in their aspect as deities are also memorialzied in the names of the days of the week but samedi is not one of these. In Latin, the names of the days comprised two words, the noun dies, meaning “day” and another word to individualize it. As English learners of French soon discover, French has a habit of not pronouncing the final consonant or consonants of a word and it takes little stretch of the imagination to see how dies became shortened to di.
The early Christians took over many customs from the Jewish religion until, for various reasons, they felt the need to differentiate their own faith from it. Until Constantine the Great in AD 321 declared Sunday to be the Christian day of rest, Christians had observed the sabbath on Saturday as did the Jews. The French name of that day of the week reflects that fact.
The ordinary folk of the time probably used the word sambatum to name the sabbath and so Saturday was to them sambati dies, “the day of the sabbath”. One can easily see how this would become shortened to “sam’ di”, phonetically transcribed as samedi.
The names of the days of the week are but one set of words that when examined closely can be seen to contain distilled vestiges if our historic past.