Yesterday there was a terrorist attack on the staff of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. As much as people around the world reacted to the horror of the event, many non-French speakers might have thought that Charlie Hebdo was someone’s full name. In English, Charlie is certainly a pet form of Charles, but while French hebdo is a colloquialism, it’s not based on a name; it’s a shortened form of hebdomadaire, meaning ‘weekly,’ because Charlie Hebdo is a weekly newspaper.
French took hebdomadaire from Ecclesiastical Latin hebdomadārius, which designated ‘a priest appointed for a weekly duty.’ The 1913 Webster’s gives more details in its definition: ‘A member of a chapter or convent, whose week it is to officiate in the choir, and perform other services, which, on extraordinary occasions, are performed by the superiors.’ The term hebdomadārius was based on Classical Latin hebdomas, which meant ‘a group of seven’ or in particular ‘the point that marks the end of a seven-day period.’ The Romans had taken the word from Greek hebdomos ‘seventh,’ which came from the simpler hepta ‘seven.’ If we remember that ancient Greek typically converted an Indo-European initial s to h (similar to the way Spanish often transformed an initial Latin f to h, as in facere —> hacer), we can more readily see the relationship between Greek hepta and its Latin cognate septem, the ancestor of Spanish siete. Those forms descended from Indo-European *septm-, the source also of native English seven.
Based on the root of Latin septem we have words like séptuplo/septuple; septeto/septet; and septiembre/September, which was the seventh month in the Roman calendar until January and February got added at the beginning of the lineup.
Returning to the word that started this article, we should note that hebdomadario/hebdomadary exists as a religious term for ‘a weekly Catholic officeholder.’ Spanish also refers to that, even in a non-religious context, as a semanero, another word that, like semana ‘week,’ comes from Latin septem. The specific ancestor was Latin septimāna, which originally designated ‘a festival falling on the seventh day of the month’—a great irony when we realize that the fanatical attack in Paris took place on the seventh day of January.
© 2015 Steven Schwartzman