Expanding my vocabulary one word at a time.
Of all the words to have thus far made it into the pages of Stickybeak’s Lexicon, brumal might well be the better known; indeed, I was pretty certain that I knew its meaning myself, not least due to my understanding of French. However, I have decided that it should still merit candidacy, standing as it does as a great example of how researching one word’s meaning can take you on an unexpected and thrilling journey, resulting in an accumulation of facts of which you had no prior knowledge.
The noun brume means, as it does in French, fog. It comes from the Latin bruma, winter; and hence brumalis, “of or pertaining to the winter solstice; wintry”. Wiktionary suggests that bruma is a contraction of brevima (the shortest day). Therefore brumal pertains to all things wintry, misty and foggy. When I think of a brumous atmosphere I see wet leaves, grey clouds and red dripping noses. Under ‘wintry’ in my trusty Roget I see: winter, brumal, brumous, snowbound and cold. Under ‘cold’, amongst many other seasonally-accurate adjectives, it suggests frigid and brumal.
You get the picture.
Whilst I was looking the word up, a faint voice was trying to reach me through the more brumous reaches of my memory (see what I did there?). As it became more insistent I heard it calling: “You know this word,” it said, “remember your French history.”
Like a red rag to the bull, I immediately retrieved my three worn volumes of ‘A History of Modern France’ (Alfred Cobban) from the shelf and started thumbing through the indexes. Bingo! Volume One’s index listed “brumaire, 18e”. The eighteenth of brumaire? Whatever could it mean? The explanation was found on page 258 (Pelican edition, 1973) which refers to Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état on the 9th November 1799, which equates to the 18 brumaire, year VIII according to the French Republican Calendar.
Interest well and truly piqued, I hastened to learn more about the history of this alternative means of marking time. It was adopted on 24th October 1793, but extended back to 22nd September 1792, the day on which the new Republic was proclaimed, (and the start of year I). The calendar’s proponents used it to help sweep away the trappings of the ancien regime, amongst which they presumably included weeks made up of seven days. Instead, they preferred to use multiples of ten and natural constants. They also made liberal use of Latin derivations in naming days and months.
A new Republican Calendar was divided into twelve months (no change so far); a month was divided into three, ten-day weeks (here we go); the tenth day, or décadi, replaced Sunday as a day of rest. Each day was divided into ten hours, and each hour into 100 decimal minutes. Therefore, one Republican hour would equal 144 of our conventional minutes.
And you thought things must have been complicated after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar.
It is with the months that our friend brumal makes its seasonal appearance: autumn gave the French Vendémaire (from the Latin vindemia, “grape harvest”), Brumaire (from, of course, the French for “fog”), and Frimaire (“frost”). Other seasons gave Nivôse (Latin nivosus, “snowy”), Pluviôse (l. pluvius, “rainy”) and Ventôse (l. ventosus, “windy”); Germinal (l. germen, “germination”), Floréal (l. flos, “flower”) and Prairial (l. prairie, “pasture”); and finally, Messidor (l. messis, “harvest”), Thermidor (Greek thermon, “summer heat”) and Fructidor (l. fructus, “fruit”).
They then went on a naming spree, anointing every day of the year after animals, tools, plants or minerals. Imagine the arguments around the revolutionary table.
I think it is rather wonderful that from an initial interest in an innocuous word meaning fog, we come to learn about an entire revolutionary era and the upheaval of the means of marking time itself.
Enjoy the Winter Solstice.