Why Are There Only 28 Days in February?

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iStock

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November.
All the rest have 31,
Except for February,
Which got the short stick because it's cold and no one likes it.  

Well, something to that effect. Some believe February once boasted 29 days and that Augustus Caesar stole a day so he could add it to August, which was named for him. (If there’s a month named after you, why not milk it?) But that’s a myth. Rather, February has 28 days because, to the Romans, the month was an afterthought. In the 8th century BCE, they used the Calendar of Romulus, a 10-month calendar that kicked the year off in March (with the spring equinox) and ended in December. January and February didn’t even exist:

Martius: 31 days
Aprilius: 30 days
Maius: 31 days
Junius: 30 days
Quintilis: 31 days
Sextilis: 30 days
September: 30 days
October: 31 days
November: 30 days
December: 30 days

Tally up those numbers, and you’ll see a problem—the year is only 304 days long. Back then, winter was a nameless, monthless period that no one cared for much. (Planters and harvesters used the calendar as a timetable. To them, winter was useless and wasn’t worth counting.) So for 61 days out of the year, Romans could ask “What month is it?” and you could correctly answer, “None!”

King Numa Pompilius thought that was stupid. Why have a calendar if you’re going to neglect one-sixth of the year? So in 713 BCE, he lined the calendar up with the year’s 12 lunar cycles—a span of about 355 days—and introduced January and February. The months were added to the end of the calendar, making February the last month of the year.

But no Roman calendar would be complete without some good old-fashioned superstition mixed in! The Romans believed even numbers were unlucky, so Numa tried to make each month odd. But to reach the quota of 355, one month had to be even. February ended up pulling the short stick, probably because it was simply the last month on the list. (Or as Cecil Adams puts it, “If there had to be an unlucky month, better make it a short one.”) Numa’s calendar ended up looking like this:

Martius: 31 days
Aprilius: 29 days
Maius: 31 days
Iunius: 29 days
Quintilis: 31 days
Sextilis: 29 days
September: 29 days
October: 31 days
November: 29 days
December: 29 days
Ianuarius: 29 days
Februarius: 28 days

Of course, a 355-day calendar had its bugs. After a few years went by, the seasons and months would fall out of sync. So to keep things straight, the Romans would occasionally insert a 27-day leap month called Mercedonius. The Romans would erase the last couple days of February and start the leap month on February 24—further evidence no one ever cared much for the month.  

This caused headaches everywhere. The leap month was inconsistent, mainly because Rome’s high priests determined when it would arrive. Not only did they insert Mercedonius haphazardly, but the priests (being politicians) abused the power, using it to extend the terms of friends and trim the terms of enemies. By Julius Caesar’s time, the Roman people had no clue what day it was.

So Caesar nixed the leap month and reformed the calendar again. (To get Rome back on track, the year 46 BCE had to be 445 days long!) Caesar aligned the calendar with the sun and added a few days so that everything added up to 365. February, which by now was at the top of the calendar, kept its 28 days. We can only imagine it’s because Caesar, like everyone before and after him, just wanted it to be March already. 

What's the Difference Between Straw and Hay?

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iStock.com/dusipuffi

The words straw and hay are often used interchangeably, and it's easy to see why: They're both dry, grassy, and easy to find on farms in the fall. But the two terms actual describe different materials, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to tell the difference between them.

Hay refers to grasses and some legumes such as alfalfa that are grown for use as animal feed. The full plant is harvested—including the heads, leaves, and stems—dried, and typically stored in bales. Hay is what livestock like cattle eat when there isn't enough pasture to go around, or when the weather gets too cold for them to graze. The baled hay most non-farmers are familiar with is dry and yellow, but high-quality hay has more of a greenish hue.

The biggest difference between straw and hay is that straw is the byproduct of crops, not the crop itself. When a plant, such as wheat or barley, has been stripped of its seeds or grains, the stalk is sometimes saved and dried to make straw. This part of the plant is lacking in nutrients, which means it doesn't make great animal fodder. But farmers have found other uses for the material throughout history: It what's used to weave baskets, thatch roofs, and stuff mattresses.

Today, straw is commonly used to decorate pumpkin-picking farms. It's easy to identify (if it's being used in a way that would be wasteful if it were food, chances are it's straw), but even the farms themselves can confuse the two terms. Every hayride you've ever taken, for example, was most likely a straw-ride.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

How and Why Did Silent Letters Emerge in English?

iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr
iStock/Bychykhin_Olexandr

Kory Stamper:

The easy answer is “"because English can’t leave well enough alone."

When we first started speaking English around 600 AD, it was totally phonetic: every letter had a sound, and we sounded every letter in a word. But English—and England itself—were influenced quite a bit by the French, who conquered the island in 1066 and held it for a long time. And then later by Dutch and Flemish printers, who were basically the main publishers in England for a solid two centuries, and then by further trading contact with just about every continent on the planet. And while we’re shaking hands and stealing language from every single people-group we meet, different parts of the language started changing at uneven rates.

By the 1400s, English started to lose its phonetic-ness: the way we articulated vowels in words like “loud” changed slowly but dramatically, and that had an effect on the rest of the word. (This is called “The Great Vowel Shift,” and it took place over a few hundred years.) Somewhere in the middle of the GVS, though, English spelling became fixed primarily because of the printing press and the easy distribution/availability of printed materials. In short: we have silent letters because the spelling of words stopped changing to match their pronunciations.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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