Greetings on this first day of noviembre/November. That entitles me to go off on a ramble similar to the one that appeared in this column a long thirteen months ago. Yes, it’s now November, the eleventh month of the year. But wait, doesn’t nov- mean ‘nine,’ and didn’t Latin novem evolve to nueve, the Spanish word for ‘nine’? And isn’t nine the native English cognate of Latin novem? No, there’s no escaping all that nice nineness.
So why is noviembre/November the eleventh month of the year? The answer is that the Roman calendar originally began with the month of March, and November was the ninth month of that year. The later addition of January and February bumped everything two months down the line, leaving septiembre/September, octubre/October, noviembre/November, and diciembre/December etymologically untrue to their numerical names.
Going back even farther, we note that the common ancestor of Latin novem and English nine was the Indo-European root for that number, *newn-. The slightly longer variant *enewn led to Greek ennea ‘nine,’ which we find in the eneágono/enneagon that is ‘a polygon with nine angles (and therefore also sides).’ Though it’s hardly a common figure, we have a second name for the enneagon: nonágono/nonagon, which uses the Latin root for ‘nine’ as its first element. But, at least as far as most English speakers are concerned, a nonagon might as well be a none-agon, because we have none of them around our houses.
Flash! This just in from the border between Mathistan and Etymologyland: scholars there have announced that the names of the polygons, like those of the last months of the calendar year, are off by two—though in the opposite direction—from their positions in the official ranking of polygons. The 1st possible polygon (because it takes at least three sides for a figure to close) is the triángulo/triangle, whose name contains the root for ‘3.’ The second possible polygon is the cuadrado/square, whose name contains the Latin root for ‘4’ (though it’s a bit concealed in the English version). The 3rd possible polygon is the pentágono/pentagon, whose name contains the Greek root for ‘5.’ And so it goes, out of the cradle endlessly rocking, but always with a name that means two higher than the figure’s position in the higher-archy of polygons.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman