In a Word: Julius Caesar’s Ongoing Contributions to Language

Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

The name Julius Caesar conjures a number of images in people’s minds. Some remember history lessons about the Roman general and dictator who died more than two millennia ago. Others recall seeing him on stage in a Shakespearean drama. Still others picture the statue standing watch outside a popular casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

But there’s even more to the name Julius Caesar than a singular man. His name is the starting point for a linguistic legacy that has spanned continents, and it still has relevance in Modern English. It all began when he decided he needed an heir.

Gaius Julius Caesar adopted his grand-nephew Octavius after Octavius’s father died. According to Roman naming conventions, Octavius took on his adoptive father’s name — the whole name. He became known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, often shortened to the anglicized Octavian today when talking about his early life.

As we all know, the Ides of March of 44 B.C. were not great for Julius Caesar, but they weren’t horrible for Octavian. In Julius’s will, he named Octavian as his heir, not only to his estate but to his power. So after the assassination — and some political and military maneuvering — Octavian assumed the role of emperor of the Roman Empire. After he defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman Senate bestowed a new title upon him: Augustus, meaning “illustrious one.” Octavian became Augustus Caesar, and his reign ushered in the Pax Romana.

When it came to lineage, Augustus followed in Julius’s footsteps: He adopted a boy, his stepson Tiberius, and named him his heir, bestowing upon him the name Caesar. Thus a trend was established among Roman emperors of identifying the next in succession by bestowing the title Caesar upon him, a title which was kept after ascension to power.

English contains a lot of words that are derived from Latin, in large part because of the expansion of the Roman Empire and the language it took with it. Caesar is one of those words that found its place in the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire — in fact, it was one of the first Latin borrowings into the Germanic languages. Translated into different tongues, caesar became synonymous with emperor. We find it in Old English as cāsere, and it appears in Middle English as keiser. On the continent, it became the German and Austrian Kaiser, the title that would be used by the emperor of Germany through the end of World War I.

The word caesar also evolved through the Slavic languages and into Russian, where it became czar or tsar, a title first adopted in 1547 by Ivan IV, Emperor of Russia. A German ambassador to Russia —Siegmund, Baron von Herberstein — brought the Latinized transliteration czar back to Europe in 1549, likely influenced by German spellings. Though the etymological link to Caesar is more apparent in the spelling czar, tsar is a more straightforward borrowing from the Russian.

Nonetheless, American political discourse latched on to the spelling czar, and pundits used it to indicate someone with practically dictatorial powers. In the 1970s and ’80s, we had, for example, an energy czar (John Love) and a drug czar (William Bennett), and the title keeps returning for many an administrative post — though never officially.

But we’ve been using the word to make political statements for longer than you might think: Adversaries of Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States, were calling him “Czar Nicholas” in the early 1830s. And it popped up again in 1866, with opponents of President Andrew Johnson dubbing him “Czar of All the Americas.”

Julius Caesar’s linguistic legacy isn’t limited to emperors and dictators, though. His name is also the source of Caesar’s agaric (an edible mushroom also called royal agaric) and, supposedly, caesarean section, a phrase that has been around since at least the early 17th century. Legend has it that Julius Caesar was cut from his mother’s womb, but that isn’t likely — at the time of Caesar’s birth, such an operation would have been rare on a living woman and would most certainly have killed her, and history shows that Caesar’s mother lived to see him become one of Rome’s greatest generals. It’s more likely that caesarean (and perhaps Caesar’s name) is derived from the Latin caedere “to cut.”

One thing that is not part of Julius Caesar’s lexical ancestry: the Caesar salad. That was named for Caesar Cardini, the man who invented it in 1924.

Featured image: Shutterstock.

In a Word: Bissextus: A Short History of Leap Years

Normally, I devote this column to exploring surprising roots of common words, but today my focus is on a word so uncommon that we only use it every four years. The word is bissextus, and it brings with it a lesson on the history of Roman calendars.

From near the founding of Rome (approximately the eighth century B.C.), its people relied on a local lunar calendar to keep track of seasons and religious ceremonies. A lunar calendar is one based on the phases of the moon instead of, like today’s calendar, on the Earth’s relationship to the sun. This ancient Roman calendar included ten months of 30 or 31 days each, and the new year began in March. (In the beginning, then, September, October, November, and December really were the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months, as their names indicate.) The resulting calendar year contained only 304 days, which were followed by an uncounted winter season.

According to tradition, the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, decided he wanted wintertime on his calendar, so he added the months of January and February to the end of the year, creating a 354-day calendar. This was followed soon after with a similar Roman republican calendar that had 355 days.

To keep the dates in sync with the seasons, the people in charge of the calendar occasionally added weeks or even a whole month to the calendar to realign the dates. Unfortunately, those “people in charge of the calendar” were politicians, so new days were sometimes added sporadically and for the wrong reasons, including to extend one’s term in office.

In the mid-first century B.C., the calendars had become so misaligned with the seasons that the vernal equinox, usually in the last third of March, was falling in the calendar in the middle of May. Julius Caesar, by this time emperor of Rome, had had enough. He called on a top astronomer to offer a solution to the mess that was the Roman calendar.

The result — what we today call the Julian calendar — was a solar (or tropical) calendar, giving up all pretense to being guided by the moon’s phases. It recognized that a solar year was 365.25 days long (which is close to being accurate, but not spot on), and so it established that a regular calendar year would contain 365 days, and every fourth year would have one extra day added to it. It also realigned the calendar to make January 1 the beginning of the new year.

So we have arrived at the modern idea of the leap year, but the Romans didn’t call it a leap year, and that extra day isn’t the one you think it is. With the old lunar calendars, the days of the month weren’t simply numbered consecutively; they were named by counting backward from the next calends (the first of the month, coinciding with the new moon), ides (middle of the month, on the full moon), or nones (approximately nine days before the ides). This system wasn’t abandoned in the new Julian calendar.

When it came time to decide where to put that extra day every fourth year, Caesar and his astronomers didn’t stray from older calendar traditions: They decided to add that extra day where they had been inserting extra days for centuries — after the sixth day before the calends of March. That means, from a certain point of view, a second sixth day before March 1 was added to every fourth year. And this is where our word bissextus comes from.

Bissextus, or the bissextile day, comes from the Latin bis “twice” + sextus “sixth.” A leap year is also known as a bissextile year. We refer to February 29 as “leap day,” but to purists, that added bissextile day was actually last Monday, February 24.

The Julian calendar, with some later, minor adjustments (including a modern numbering system), sufficed for centuries. But a solar year is actually 365.242199 days long, not the nice round 365.25 that Caesar’s astronomer reckoned. By the mid-16th century, the Julian calendar was off by about 11 days, which was causing problems with the calculation of religious holidays.

A new solution was issued in 1582 as a papal bull from Pope Gregory XIII. The Gregorian calendar — which is what mall calendar kiosks are selling every November and December — eliminated 10 days from October of that year, thus realigning the spring equinox to March 21. It also established a new calculation for leap years: For centennial years, only those divisible by 400 would be leap years. The year 2000, then, was a leap year, but 2100, 2200, and 2300 will not be.

Protestant countries weren’t so keen on this new calendar because of its source, so it took time before it was widely adopted. England and its colonies didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752, which is why George Washington, for example, appears to have two birthdays in 1731: February 11 according to the Julian calendar his parents would have used when he was born, and February 22 according to the Gregorian calendar we use today.

Featured image: Shutterstock