The origin of the word April is mysterious; Henry Hoenigswald called it “the most obscure of the Latin month names.” This was in his 1941 article “On Etruscan and Latin Month-Names” (American Journal of Philology 62.2: 199-206), which begins with Émile Benveniste:

After rejecting for good reasons the Indo-European etymologies of the word, he recognizes its Etruscan character and ties it up with the proper names Lat. Aprilius Aprius Apronius, Etr. apruntial, the combination of which leads to an Etr. *apru. *apru, for its part, may be identified with the Greek short-name Ἀφρώ “Ἀφροδίτα,” a form which the Etruscans would have taken over, like so many other mythical elements, from central Greece. Under such circumstances it is perhaps not a mere accident if in Thessalic calendars a month Ἂφριος appears, which corresponds to late March and early April.

Hoenigswald then adduces Etruscan Amp(h)iles ‘May’ and says that not only does it share “the well known Etruscan -l-suffix,” but “it can also be shown that its structure is essentially analogous to that of Aprilis.” After much discussion of other Etruscan names, he concludes:

Thus, the mediaeval tradition of Etruscan month-names deserves more credence than it is usually given. It is highly probable that the Etruscans named their months after gods; and it is a lucky accident that just that part of the Etruscan language with which we are most familiar, the proper names, contains enough related elements to let us know or guess the significance of those denominations, and the principles of their formation.

The OED (entry updated December 2008) is dubious, saying Latin Aprīlis is “of uncertain origin; perhaps < Etruscan,” but the derivation is certainly attractive and I’m tentatively adopting it. Anatoly Liberman, in his investigation, says “All things considered, the Etruscan origin of April is hardly more convincing than the others we have examined here,” but he doesn’t reference Hoenigswald, and I rarely agree with him anyway. Thanks for the links, Bruce!

Update. Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti has kindly provided Robert Maltby’s entry on Aprilis from A Lexicon of Ancient Latin Etymologies (Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1991).


  1. For some reason, I thought it was somehow cognate with Aphrodite. I may have even stated as much in a lecture I gave last week about theophoric names in the Bible and in paganism https://youtu.be/jOyu7d3kXg4 where I certainly connected the Germanic Eostre and the Babylonian Isthar to the Canaanite Ashtoreth.

  2. Well, according to Hoenigswald, it is:

    *apru, for its part, may be identified with the Greek short-name Ἀφρώ “Ἀφροδίτα”

    (Ἀφροδίτα = Aphrodite)

  3. My enthusiasm is dampened by the fact that he offers no direct evidence of an Etruscan month name of Apri- or anything related. The relevant month is instead called Cabreas in Etruscan. And no other Etruscan month name shows any relationship to a Latin month name. Hoenigswald lowers his head and waves his hands, saying that it doesn’t matter because Etruscan culture was so “decentralized” that maybe other Etruscans had different month names that did match.

    If we’re looking for a theophoric as a source, I’m not sure why we wouldn’t look directly to Aphrios, the “Thessalic” name for more or less the same month (moved forward a bit). If you go back to Hoenigswald’s source, Cortsen writes that Thesally was a key area for the cult of Aphrodite. He suggests -le is an Etruscan suffix, and further, that it explains the endings of the old month-names of Quintilis and Sextilis, making them also, um, semi-Etruscan, strengthening his argument further (apparently his argument is that the Romans translated Etruscan month names meaning fifth-month and sixth-month (which are also unattested and contradict the month-names actually on record) and appended an Etruscan suffix as a nice gesture to their origin!) But Wiktionary states that -ilis is just proto-Italic, cognate with proto-Germanic -ilaz. We don’t need Etruscan for Quintilis or Sextilis, let alone Aprilis.

    Etruscan seems beside the point.

  4. Our source for the Etruscan month name Cabreas is a gloss in the Liber glossarum, a compilation most probably completed in Carolingian times and surviving in a number of manuscripts of Carolingian date, but drawing upon a great variety of earlier sources, many of which are unknown. Here is the gloss:

    Cabreas Tuquorum lingua aprilis mensis dicitur

    For Tuquorum, read Tuscorum. An image of the manuscript page with the gloss can be seen here at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The entry is in the middle of the third column on the right. The letter a in the particular script of this manuscript has a distinctive form, almost like a ligature of a modern ıc.

  5. Karl Olzscha (1954) ‘Götterformeln und Monatsdaten in der großen etruskischen Inschrift von Capua’, Glotta 34, pp. 71-93 (here on JSTOR), has interpreted Cabreas as a folk-etymological alteration of what many scholars accept as an Etruscan word *apirasa, locative apirase ‘April’ in the Tabula Capuana. From page 84f.:

    Wir können also sagen, daß die Opfer des dritten Abschnittes im Mai, die des vierten im Juni darzubringen sind. Wenn das richtig ist, gehören die Opfer des zweiten Abschnittes in den April. Hier steht nun das Wort apirase. Die Wortsubstanz beider Worte stimmt weitgehend uberein. aprilis zeigt darüber hinaus eine adjektivische -l-Erweiterung wie Quinct-ilis, Sexti-lis, der eine Metathese von r und i vorausgeht. Die etruskische Monatsnamenliste hat freilich Cabreas fur „April”. Entweder liegt hier eine spätere Weiterbildung vor, indem man vor *abreas aus volksetymologischen Gründen ein c- setzte, um den Anschluß an lat. caper, capra zu gewinnen, oder Cabreas ist ein ganz anderes Wort. Daß die Monatsnamen in den einzelnen Stämmen und Städten, nicht nur in Griechenland, sondern auch in Italien, sehr verschieden waren, habe ich in meinem Aufsatz über die „umbrischen Monatsdaten” gezeigt.

    Rex Wallace (2008) Zikh Rasna. A Manual of the Etruscan Language and Inscriptions reads the part of the relevant section (TCa 8) of the Tabula Capuana dealing with April as follows (p. 114; boldface mine):

    iσ́ve.i.tule ilu.c.ve .a.pirase leθa.m.su.l. ilucu cuie.s.χu pe.r.pri

    ‘On the Ides, on the ilucu, in April, for (the divinity) Lethams ilucu cuieskhu must be celebrated (?).’

    (The dots in .a.pirase represent the ‘syllabic puncts’, an Etruscan orthographic device used to mark the initial vowel of a word beginning with a vowel, and also the final consonant of a closed syllable.)

  6. Didn’t Livy have something to say on this?

  7. January First-of-May says

    The sources I’ve seen tended to mention the aperire option (now apparently usually considered a Roman-era folk etymology that stuck) as the only one. TIL that there are other competing etymologies.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    quod ad singulorum dierum vocabula pertinet dixi. mensium nomina fere sunt aperta, si a Martio, ut antiqui constituerunt, numeres: nam primus a Marte. secundus, ut Fulvius scribit et Iunius, a Venere, quod ea sit Aphrodite; cuius nomen ego antiquis litteris quod nusquam inveni, magis puto dictum, quod ver omnia aperit, Aprilem. tertius a maioribus Maius, quartus a iunioribus dictus Iunius. dehinc quintus Quintilis et sic deinceps usque ad Decembrem a numero.
    Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.33

  9. @Reuven Chaim Klein. “I certainly connected the Germanic Eostre and the Babylonian Isthar to the Canaanite Ashtoreth.”

    The consensus today seems to be that the theonym Ēostre and related forms go back to the Proto-Germanic theonym *Austrō(n) and that the latter goes back to Proto-Indo-European *H₂ewsṓs *‘goddess of the dawn’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%92ostre).

    Alexander Hislop’s suggestion that Ēostre goes back to the theonym Ishtar (presented in his The Two Babylons: Romanism and Its Origins, 1853 and later editions) seems to be based just on a visual resemblance between the two names (see “Erroneous association with Ishtar” at that link). The same may also be true of Ēostre and Ashtoreth.

    If you have evidence for a connection Ēostre and Ishtar ~ Ashtoreth, it would be good to hear it.

  10. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Given that Varro slides in a maioribus Maius there, I know how far I trust his research on aperire. Though interesting that he reports never seeing an occurrence of Aphrodite in (presumably Latin) old writings of the which I’m sure more were around in his days.

  11. >seems to be based just on a visual resemblance between the two names

    It is also interesting that Ishtar by interpretatio graeca is Venus/Aphrodite, the proposed etymology for April. But is there a plausible path from the Semitic theonym to a broad swathe of Germanic languages? It’s not a lot to go on, especially when even the April etymology is unsteady.

  12. The morning star (in Semitic cults too) is apparently one connection.

  13. Also, if there were any relevance between Ishtar and Eostre, interpretatio graeca is an alternate path rather an etymological relationship — though there too, there are difficulties, since Eos is known as a dawn goddess, which is a step removed from the morning star in the pantheon and in a common sense cosmology. I guess the concept could transfer, but it’s another hurdle.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Obviously it *could* conceivably be a false friend, but the hard-to-miss similarity between Old English Eostre and the Greek dawn-goddess Eos/Ἠώς is certainly not inconsistent with the standard-ish account that they are cognates descending from the same PIE foremother (not to mention the plausible cognates in Latin, Vedic Sanskrit, etc etc etc).

  15. The Easter/Ishtar equation is, to be frank, nonsense. It circulates around the internet pretty freely, and especially this time of year is the cause of much gritting of teeth. Though this year it wasn’t too bad, so maybe the popularity of this particular folk etymology is finally fading.

    The diphthong ēa- in Old English (also ēo- in part of Northumbrian) goes back to Proto-Germanic *au-, and the whole formation is rather obviously connected to *h₂ausos- ‘dawn’. That seems to have been an s-stem, but the r-derivative is paralleled by Lithuanian aušrà ‘dawn’ (and similar Balto-Slavic forms) and the Sanskrit adjective uṣrá- ‘red, light, of dawn’, substantivized as uṣrā́ ‘dawn’. The Germanic form is an n-stem, but otherwise comes from *h₂aus-r- straightforwardly.

    The only serious debate is whether this actually referred to a goddess as such (as Bede claims), or whether it was an old word for ‘dawn’ without any particular deific associations which survived as the name for a spring festival. George Walkden has a good breakdown of this question that he posted about a week ago: https://troutworthy.blogspot.com/2023/04/evidence-for-germanic-easter-goddess.html

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Of course on the one hand we know fairly little about pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religion to start with (other than plausibly guessing it was generally similar to that of various other Germanic-speaking peoples where there’s more documentation) but on the other there is AFAIK no evidence whatsoever for any actual cult of a goddess named Eostre beyond a passing mention in Bede. And to circle back to the beginning theme of this thread, Bede’s mention of the goddess is IIRC specifically in the context of trying to explain the etymology of one of the Old English month-names, via a theophoric etymology. Which is not to say he made it up, but that’s consistent with the notion that that he had no real information (even via inherited oral tradition) of any actual devotion to Eostre but that her divine existence was simply more or less postulated to make the etymology work and had left no traces in the actual religious life and practices of the eve-of-being-Christianized Anglo-Saxons other than the month-name, and that if and only if you accept that etymological claim.

    EDITED TO ADD: I had not seen Nelson Goering’s perhaps more scholarly account of the same basic point before posting my comment …

  17. By the way: ʕaṯtar-

    Unknown. A borrowing from Proto-Indo-European *h₂stḗr (“star”) has been suggested, perhaps by way of an Anatolian language, but runs into phonetic and semantic problems that are difficult to resolve.

    Possibly inherited from Proto-Afroasiatic and cognate with Central Atlas Tamazight ⵉⵜⵔⵉ (itri) and Proto-Chadic *təra (whence Hausa tàurārṑ), if they are not in turn borrowings ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *h₂stḗr.

    (no, I don’t understand the story behind this “has been suggested”, especially phonetically)

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    The “troutworthy” piece Nelson G. linked to, by the way, seems to suffer from the all-too-common defect of assuming the only two possibilities are (a) Bede’s account is actually accurate; or (b) Bede just fabricated it. This overlooks possibility (c), namely that Bede was passing on w/o explicitly hedging or disassociating himself from it an accurate version of a not-itself-necessary-accurate account that had been handed down to him and that struck him (rightly or wrongly) as sounding credible/plausible but that he was in no position to actually fact-check in any even semi-rigorous manner before (to use an anachronistic metaphor) going to press. Ignoring possibility (c) is IMHO a sign that the writer may not be someone to be trusted when talking about pre-modern chroniclers/historians where (c) is a pretty ubiquitous possibility for all sorts of accounts of things that it is not clear the chronicler/historian was personally an (alleged) eyewitness to.

  19. *h₂ausos- … The Germanic form is an n-stem, but otherwise comes from *h₂aus-r- straightforwardly.
    (also appeared here)

  20. de Vaan has the following etymology for aprilis:

    April was the second month of the Roman year. Hence, it is possible to connect it with ab < *h2epo “away from, off” as *ap(e)rilis “the following, next”. This could reflect the same preform *ap(e)ri- “openness” as posited s.v. apricus. Differently Neri 2007:67, who posits *h1p-r- to *h1(e)p(-i) “toward”. The suffix -ilis can be analogical to the months Quintilis and Sextilis (Leumann 1977:350)

  21. I think the shades of possibility about Bede’s account are very numerous, especially since ‘fabrication’ can mean anything from ‘intentionally made it up to fit some agenda’ to ‘assumed it was probably true on general principles’. I’m not sure this really makes a difference when considering the evidence for a goddess *Austrōn-, when it comes down to it.

    I do have a couple of my own quibbles, especially the idea that something either ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ a deity — it seems to me that what was considered divine could be rather fluid in a lot of early polytheistic religions. But he covers what the main textual sources are clearly, and emphasizes very correctly that in terms of actual texts, we’ve basically only got Bede for this goddess.

  22. The ancient Greeks anthropomorphized many places and concepts as deities of a sort, but most of them were not worshipped in the way that the Olympians and other cultic divinities were. Some of them (Pontus, Tartarus, or Ouranos for example) had a few popular myths about their personified natures, but others (Chaos, Aether, or Ananke) didn’t even really have that and were just identities attached to concepts.

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