What’s in a Name?

Opinions Trends & Culture - March 5th, 2010
Photo by J.W.Photography

by Ian de Stains OBE

Photo by J.W.Photography

The cover date of this issue suggests we are approaching the ides of March. I wonder how many readers these days would know the actual numerical date? Yet, not all that long ago, anyone marking out their days according to the Roman calendar would have been as familiar with the ides of any month (the 15th in March, May, July and October; the 13th in all the others) as they were with the nones (the 7th in March, May, July and October; the 5th in the rest); and calends (the 1st day of every month and the derivation of the word calendar itself). These, as it were, were the bookmarks of their time, all other days being marked in relation to them, and they were used in one form or another in the Roman and Julian calendars until the Renaissance.

Unless they are scholars—of Latin, ancient history, or conceivably, theology—most people will be unfamiliar with these terms. Even then, their usage today is virtually obsolete. The on possible exception is the ides of March, and for that we have to thank (as with many phrases that have stuck in the English language) William Shakespeare. In his history play Julius Caesar, the Emperor is warned to “beware the ides of March.” We will never know if in real life Caesar was given such a warning, but on March 15, 44BC, he was assassinated in the streets of Rome.

Certainly since Shakespeare put those fateful words in the soothsayer’s mouth, the term ‘the ides of March’ took on an aura of foreboding; there was something negative about it, perhaps even menacing. And this attached to the day itself. To those who believed in such things—as the Japanese still do with their auspicious and inauspicious days: days when it is good to marry or not, good to break ground for a new house or not, and so on—the date took on a particular significance.

This is ironic when you think that originally, the Idus Martias, as it was known to the Romans, was actually a festive day dedicated to the god Mars, when there would have been military parades to honor this deity of war. It is highly unlikely that there would have been the slightest hint of negativity, even after the fall of Caesar.

All of this is perhaps of no more than a passing interest these days. But there is—for me at any rate—a curious synchronicity. March15 happens to be the final deadline for the submission of papers to the income tax office. Beware, indeed, the ides of March!

Ian de Stains is the executive director of the British Chamber of

Commerce in Japan. In abbreviation, he normally signs himself IdeS.