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Ну и зима выдалась! (This is some kind of winter!) Over where I am right now, daffodils and cherry trees are already blooming and folks are strolling around in t-shirts and flip-flops (and no, I am not in the Southern Hemisphere or in the tropics). All the while, my friends in Volgograd, Russia, mention чрезвычайно холодные дни (exceptionally cold days) with temperatures dipping well below -20 degrees C (- 4 degrees F).
In the absence of снег, лёд и мороз (snow, ice and frost), I resorted to watching one of my favorite childhood cartoons, 12 месяцев (12 Months). If you are not familiar with the story, in a nutshell it’s about a little girl sent to the forest to pick подснежники (snowdrops)… in the middle of winter, in the month of сечень.
Wait just a second, you might say. What month is сечень? Months in Russian sound pretty much the same as they do in English since they are based on the Latin names.
This makes their names very easy to remember. But if you are looking for an extra challenge as well as some interesting Russian language trivia, let’s learn old Slavic names for all the 12 months.
Январь (January) was known as просинец from the verb сиять (to shine) since the days were becoming longer. It was also known as лютовей (lit: a month of fierce wind) and трескун, from the word треск (crackle). If you enjoy reading classical Russian literature or playing World of Warcraft in Russian, you are familiar with a phrase трескучий мороз (ringing frost).
Февраль (February) was called сечень since that was the time for cutting down trees. The verb сечь means to hew or to chop (in addition to “to whip”). Other names for February were лютень (fierce), вьюговей (lit: one that blows blizzards) and бокогрей (lit: one that warms up sides). The latter is because the sun is coming out more in February, but there’s still no real heat.
Март (March) was сухий. It sounds very close to сухой (dry) and has the same meaning. Snow melts and some patches might be not only free of snow, but also dry in March. Such patches are called проталины (thaw holes) and earn March its other name, протальник. Finally, it is also грачевник, a month when грачи (rooks) return.
Апрель (April) used to be called берёзозол. It’s a compound noun made up of берёза (birch tree) and зол… But it’s not the same зол as in the sentence папа был очень зол на Сергея (Dad was very angry at Sergey). In other words, it’s not the short form of злой (angry), but rather a no-longer used word related to the verb зеленеть (to become green). So April is the month of greening birches (hey, that’s quite an interesting image – angry crackling birches of January and grinning birches of April).
April’s other names are even more cheerful – снегогон (one driving away snow), ручейник from the word ручей (stream), and первоцвет, another compound noun made up of первый (first) and цвет, here – a short form of цветок (flower). Another piece of trivia for you – the flower примула (primrose) is sometimes called первоцвет (first-flowering).
Май (May) was травный, травник or травень from the word трава (grass). Not much to add here other than it was also called цветень from цвести (to flower) and ярец. Now that last word is interesting. If you try looking it up online, you will get either links to profiles of all the people with the last name Ярец or a page that explains that ярец is a one-year old beaver. However, the month was named after the sun god, Ярило.
Which brings us to июнь (June) or изок as it was known. I’ve never heard of the word изок until now, but turns out, it is an old word for кузнечик (grasshopper). It is also a month of хлеборост. Hint: another compound word made up of хлеб (bread) and растить (to grow). Neither the word изок nor хлеборост are in use now, but скопидом is. It means “a hoarder” and is another name for June since future harvest depends on the work done in June.
Like it so far? Stay tuned to find out about 6 more months!