A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales From The Nursery – Part Forty


30 days hath September

We don’t make it easy for the little ones, do we? I’m thinking particularly of that artificial construct, time. In adulthood we are slaves to the clock – it rules our every action. Each tick means we are moving inexorably to the day of our eventual demise. In preparation for their enslavement we are keen to drum into their malleable brains that there are 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to the hour and 24 hours in a day. And then there is need to grasp that the little hand on the clock face signifies the hour and the large one the minute. But what about the second hand? And why does the clock face only have twelve numbers when there are 24 hours in a day?

If that was not difficult enough, then there is the concept of days and months to grapple with. Twelve months in a year is a relatively easy concept to grasp and the names of the months, a heady mix of our Roman and Viking heritage, can eventually be remembered but why do certain months have a different number of days in them  and how to remember which they are?

This is where our rhyme today comes in. The most common version – there seem to be at least 90 variants – goes as follows, “Thirty days hath September/ April, June and November/ All the rest have thirty-one/ except for February alone/ which hath but twenty-eight days clear/ and twenty-nine in each leap year”. The rhyme is what is known as a mnemonic rhyme, a verse which supposedly makes the reciter remember the information it contains more easily. For the purist the irregularity of the rhythm of this verse rather jars, but never mind.

It has a fairly elderly pedigree. A Latin version of the rhyme appears in Anianus’ Comptus Manualis which was published in Strasbourg in 1488. The first English version of the rhyme appeared in the 1590 edition of Grafton’s Chronicles and was included in an anonymously published Arithmetic in 1596. Clearly, the need to grasp the number of days in any given month was an age-old problem. I remember using this rhyme as an aide-memoire and as I am fairly confident I can name the number of days in any month correctly, it must have done the trick.

Of course, our European friends do things rather differently. Particularly amongst the Germans, French, Belgians, Swiss, Greeks and Danes a knuckle mnemonic is deployed and pretty neat it is too. If you make a fist, you will note, ignoring the thumb, that you have four knuckles and three depressions. The mnemonic assigns a value of 31 days to a knuckle and assigns a non-31 day value to a depression. Starting with the knuckle of the little finger on your left hand, we will say this represents January which has 31 days. We now encounter our first depression (February) which has fewer than 31 days. The next, March, is a knuckle and so on until we reach the knuckle of the index finger, July, which, of course, has 31 days.

You now have two options. You can make a fist of your right hand and, ignoring the thumb, can continue as before. The knuckle of the index finger of your right hand is August which has 31 days, the first depression is September which has fewer than 31 days and so on until you run out of months. Alternatively, you can just use the left and work backwards assigning August to the knuckle of the index finger. Easy! Who needs a rhyme?

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