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Why is it called 'the month of January' and not 'the month January'? As I was learning German, I noticed they used the latter (der Monat Januar). Why the discrepancy?

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Excellent question! (I've absolutely no idea why). –  FumbleFingers Jan 7 '13 at 18:19
    
In German, how do they say The Year of the Dragon? –  GEdgar Jan 7 '13 at 18:36
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In French they say what is the equivalent of the month of January (le mois de janvier) and there's been at least as much of French influence since 1066 in the English language as German ! –  Laure Jan 7 '13 at 18:39
    
It is not just the month of January, but also the season of winter and such. Similarly in Romance, where you have el mes de enero and la estación de inverno in Spanish, il mese de gennaio and la stagione de’inverno in Italian, and so and so forth. // Which brings to mind the unrelated question of why we bother to capitalize the names of months given that we no longer do so with seasons. In Spanish and Italian you do neither, while in Portuguese, you capitalize months as though they were French when in Portugal, but leave them lowercase in Brazil as though they were Spanish. –  tchrist Jan 7 '13 at 18:48
    
Why do we say "the Sea of Galilee", "the Gulf of Mexico", "the Gulf of California", "the Cape of Good Hope", and "the Lake of the Woods"? –  Peter Shor Jan 7 '13 at 20:06

3 Answers 3

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Both are correct:

The month, January, is the first month of the year.

The month of January is the first month of the year.

In the first case you do need the commas to indicate a parenthetical explanation. Without them you have two nouns together, and nouns don't qualify nouns. An adjective would work, but neither month nor January have a corresponding adjective.

In the second case we have a special case of genitive called the genitive of apposition. It has the same meaning as the first. The second noun restricts and clarifies the other. A wordy explanation would be to replace the "of" with "that is to say", viz:

The month, that is to say January, is the first month of the year.

It isn't particularly common in English to use the genitive this way, but that is the particular syntactic structure being used here.

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Hmm, it sounds satisfactory. But is 'that is to say' a good replacement for 'of'? To my ears, 'that is to say' brings an approximate rewording of phrases before and after. Here, it should mean month is understood to be January (through context?) but is explained more clearly using 'that is to say'. –  Anurag Kalia Jan 9 '13 at 6:12
    
Honestly, that is an artifact of my Greek, which uses the genitive of apposition more commonly. This is a common suggestion to convey the meaning into English. You might be right, the point really is that "January" is a clarification of the word "month" not an addition to it. In a sense it "adjectivizes" the noun. (Don't you just love that new verb :-) –  Fraser Orr Jan 9 '13 at 16:03
    
I approve your question, if only to put a comma here. Appositive genitive seems to pervade any language that I touch! –  Anurag Kalia Jan 9 '13 at 21:58

I'm no authority on this, but the etymology for the month names may provide a hint:

January etymology probably comes from "Janus" -- a Roman deity; so if it meant "The month of Janus" that may make more sense. 1

February also had a similar etymology; "Month of purification"2;

It breaks down once we get to the months named after numbers (sept/oct/nov/dec), though.

I've often wondered why we named our last few months incorrectly (october isn't the eight month), but that's a separate issue, isn't it :)

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I think the OP is asking about the "of" part. –  Malvolio Jan 7 '13 at 18:56

IMO, this is grammatically incorrect and a case of periphrasis gone wrong. But it has nevertheless become acceptable through regular use. It should be the month, January and the season, winter rather than the month of January or the season of winter just as it is the year 2013 rather than the year of 2013.

The use of the preposition of alongside a noun usually indicates possession. Phrases such as the PM of Djibouti or the admiral of the fleet can be restated as Djibouti's PM or the fleet's admiral respectively. This doesn't really work with the month of January as January's month does not compute.

Moreover, the admiral of the fleet sounds far more prestigious than the less flowery fleet's admiral. I suspect that the use of the verbose month of January came about for similar reasons. Even the presence of the word month in the phrase is often superfluous.

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Not an expert, but wouldn't it require a comma as in "the month, January" to make it grammatically correct that way? –  cbbcbail Jan 7 '13 at 19:43
    
@cbbcbail Added. Thank you. –  coleopterist Jan 8 '13 at 4:15
    
I think the contrast between Romance usage and Germanic usage, given above, is a far better starting point for speculation. According to ngrams (tinyurl.com/b4vdrvu) "month of X" phrases have been declining in use, not increasing, over the last 200 years or so. –  Ryan Jan 8 '13 at 21:28
    
@Ryan You're welcome to add an answer :) ... and what does the NGram prove? –  coleopterist Jan 9 '13 at 5:02
    
@coleopterist, the NGram wasn't to prove anything, really. You wrote, "But it has nevertheless become acceptable through regular use." If that's true, and so is the NGram, then it must have become acceptable some time ago, but usage has been declining for 200 years, apparently. –  Ryan Jan 14 '13 at 7:00

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