- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 05/04/2011
- calendar, french revolution, germinal, months, Translation
Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety.
Although this list may put you in mind of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it in fact represents the earliest rendering into English of one of the great, forgotten calendars of our time.
The metric system of weights and measurements was one of the more lasting and progressive reforms to be instigated during the French Revolution; it is not well known that this new system was also extended to the calendar, and to the measurement of time in general. The so-called French Revolutionary Calendar was in use from 1793 until Napoleon did away with it in 1805. Apart from a (very) brief resurrection during the Paris Commune of 1871, it has been out of use ever since, and is now no more than an evocative footnote to the history of revolutionary hubris.
The calendar, like the metric system, was based on a logical division of time. The year was divided into 12 months of 30 days, with the remaining five days of the year as holidays. Each month was divided into three decades, and every tenth day was a day of rest. The days of the year were given specific names – replacing the Catholic saints’ days – with the fifth and tenth day named after animals and agricultural tools respectively, and the remaining days after trees, bushes and plants. Each ‘metric’ day was divided into ten hours, of a hundred minutes, of a hundred seconds.
But the real charm of this system is the names that were given to the new months. They were thought up by a poet/gardener partnership, and are intended to suggest the type of weather one could expect to prevail (in the region of Paris) during that month. Autumn was composed of Vendémiaire (from Latin vindemia, “grape harvest”), Brumaire (from French brume, “fog” – as in Marx’s 18th Brumaire), and Frimaire (from French frimas, “frost”); Winter, of Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”), Pluviôse (from Latin pluvius, “rainy”) and Ventôse (from Latin ventosus, “windy”); Spring, of Germinal (from Latin germen, “germination” – as in Zola’s novel of the same name), Floréal (from Latin flos, “flower”) and Prairial (from French prairie, “pasture”); and Summer, of Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”), Thermidor (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”) and Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”).
It took Carlyle to come up with a more respectful English version than the one quoted above. As in the French, his translation uses clearly recognisable roots, recomposed into suggestive and elegant new formulations: Vintagearious, Fogarious, Frostarious, Snowous, Rainous, Windous, Buddal, Floweral, Meadowal, Reapidor, Heatidor, and Fruitidor.
I am considering launching a campaign for the re-adoption of this system as a sort of pan-European calendarial esperanto. At the very least, as of today, Décadi, 20 Frimaire, I am going to begin dating everything according to this system (thanks to http://www.windhorst.org/calendar/).