May 2, 2006

Days, weeks, months, years.

Which of these units of time is not like the others? Weeks! Weeks have no astronomical basis. So why do we have weeks? What are weeks for? Why 7? Because it was written in the Bible. Perhaps hardcore atheists should object to this sevenness.
There were rival weeks, both ancient and modern, including short or long weeks corresponding to market days in some agricultural societies, 10-day weeks in revolutionary France and both five- and six-day weeks in Stalinist Russia.
6?! That's just crazy. I can see wanting to go to 10, but 6? That's just perverse. But there's not much point trying to go all metric with 10, because days and years are determined by overwhelming astronomical facts.

Still, I wonder how different we would be if we hadn't settled on these cycles of 7 days. The rhythm of weeks shapes our moods and activities. We keep going through this short arc of ambition. Tuesdays are crucial, you know? Get cracking! If things don't happen on Tuesday, you feel like giving up. I mean there will be some chance to salvage the week on the Wednesday, but you'll have to do it under the weight of a failed Tuesday.

Man, it's Tuesday. Tuesday! Don't you understand about Tuesday?

But if we had a 10-day cycle, the second day would be just a smooth acceleration day. The third day would have more oomph. The fourth day would add room to really develop the week's accomplishments. Ah, how much potential life would contain, how effective I would be, if only those French revolutionaries had gotten their way!

Shut up! It's Tuesday! Get out of here! I can already see the gaping maw of defeat that is Thursday!


SteveR said...

You'd ruin all the great music, not to mention Solomon Grundy

"Every other day, every other day,
Every other day of the week is fine, yeah
But whenever Monday comes, but whenever Monday comes
You can find me cryin' all of the time"

Sean E said...

Plus with 10-day weeks, every week would have a 3-day weekend!

Mack said...

>Perhaps hardcore atheists should object to this sevenness.<

Good point. I had no idea it was just a silly religious invention.

I don't really mind the 7 day weeks though... what we really need to change is the two-day weekend. Maybe we could move to an 8 day week and then implement the 3 day weekend.

AllenS said...

Tuesday is the cruelest of days. Monday, while you may be back at work, at least you can think about all the fun you had on the weekend. Tuesday, all you can think about is Monday. Wednesday, woo hoo! The week is half over. Thursday, you're almost to Friday (maybe I call in sick tomorrow). Friday, happy days are here again, tomorrow the weekend starts.

Word verification: czsvcic

Meaning: The eighth day of the week, that was rejected because of the bad name

SteveR said...

I currently work a 9/80 schedule with every other Friday off and set up so Monday holidays create four day weekends.

Marge: Homer, the plant called. They said if you don't show up tomorrow don't bother showing up on Monday.
Homer: Woo-hoo. Four-day weekend.

Ann Althouse said...

I love the way the first response to any suggestion for a different length week is what does that do to the weekend? Is the weekend going to get better?

Re Tuesday: Improve you attitude Allen. Tuesday is the one day that you really need to full-out work. Ease into the week on Monday, then get a good Tuesday, and the rest of the week will feel great. Don't think it's only Tuesday, in the sense of, we've still go three more days 'til the weekend. Think it's only Tuesday, in the sense of, we really only need to work on Tuesday. But don't tell anyone I told you that. Tell them I said, put your nose to the grindstone and give it 100%.

David said...

For many of us the seven day week is a construct. In the military we worked 2 afternoon, 2 daylight, two mids then 3 days off unless we were on alert.

Current job is to go to work when called: 12 hours on duty, 12 hours off, 12 hours on duty, then 3 days off.

In a society of 24/7 bankers hours are rapidly fading for most of us.
Favorite days off are Sunday/Monday.

Balfegor said...

I wonder exactly when the various East Asian states shifted to the 7-day week. Currently, in Japan and Korea (and probably China), there's 7 days, with the following names:

Sunday - Sun
Monday - Moon
Tuesday - Fire
Wednesday - Water
Thursday - Wood
Friday - Metal
Saturday - Earth

taken obviously from the Sun and Moon and then the five elements. But I wonder where and when those conventions were developed.

RogerA said...

IIRC, sometime ago NPR did a piece on productivity by day of the work week. Tuesday was far and away the most productive day in terms of output. Judging from the comments, it is obvious why that would be.

Balfegor said...

Ah, Wikipedia to the rescue. English Wikipedia attributes Chinese adoption to the 16th century Jesuits in the Imperial court, and the original system to the ancient Babylonians and Hindus. I hesitate to give the attribution in China much credence, though, since the article's writers seem unaware that the Japanese had extensive contact with Europeans well before the 19th century.

Japanese wikipedia doesn't mention Jesuits, but attributes the 7-day week to Babylonian and then Egyptian cosmology. The Sinitic system of matching elements and days corresponds also to the heavenly bodies that would have been visible to the ancients:

Mercury - Water
Venus - Metal/Gold
Mars - Fire
Jupiter - Wood
Saturn - Earth

And then the moon and the sun.

So it may come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But it also seems to have independent origins in ancient astrology.

Atheists can rest easy -- it was invented by pagans.

howzerdo said...

Now this is something I never thought about before. I always thought a 4/3 week would be nice, even if it meant working 10 hour days. (As long as those days didn't start earlier - I am an owl, not a lark.) But now I teach in the evenings, and always work from home 60%-75% of the time anyway, so it doesn't have as much charm for me, except in how my schedule coincides with other people's.

My mother always says "don't wish your life away," when someone grumbles about the work week, or anticipates a weekend or some big event. I do my best to keep those words in mind. It is important to love Tuesday as much as Saturday.

Marghlar said...

Seven days made sense when we used lunar months -- 1/4 of 28 days.

The problem is that it divides wretchedly into both 30/31 and 365.

What would make much more sense would be 12 30 day months, each divided into weeks of 5 or 6 days apiece, and then one holiday week of 5 days every regular year, and six days every leap year. (Finally, leap years would be cool!)

I think Tolkien actually came up with something similar for the Lord of the Rings, if memory serves.

Marghlar said...

Balfegor: Why should atheists rest easy because seven days a week was invented by pagans? That doesn't make it make any more mathematical sense, or make it invented by people who aren't theists, right? Why would we be sadder if it was the church?

(Note: I don't actually care who came up with the week, or the rest of the awkward just bugs me how poorly it works.)

J said...

Can't remember exactly who said it but...

"Seven shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be seven. Eight shalt thou not count, nor either count thou six, excepting that thou then proceed to seven. Nine is right out. Once the number seven, being the seventh number, be reached..."

nypundit said...

I always that that the 7 days of the week was in rememberence to the 7 Rings of Power that the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone posessed.

AllenS said...


I'm retired. I'll try to work harder on my presentation of humor. I was a pressman on a four color web offset press. 4 weeks of days, then 4 weeks of afternoons, then 4 weeks of the dreaded midnight shift. Year after year. 35 years is a long time. Woo hoo! Retirement! I could care less what day it is.

Balfegor said...

Balfegor: Why should atheists rest easy because seven days a week was invented by pagans? That doesn't make it make any more mathematical sense, or make it invented by people who aren't theists, right? Why would we be sadder if it was the church?

An awful lot of atheists get hives when it's Christians and Jews who made something up, and are considerably more relaxed about pagan or invented customs. I am not one of them (I am fond of Christianity, in a mildly exoticising way) but I know many.

SteveR said...


Smilin' Jack said...

I think we atheists are more supportive of pagan customs because they're more fun than the boring Christian crap. So Christmas (originating from the pagan solstice celebration) is cool (people give you stuff!) but you can take Lent and shove it.

And Ann needs a more positive attitude about Thursdays..."gaping maw of defeat," indeed! How about "Yay! Only three more days till Monday!"

Maxine Weiss said...

--Saturday Night Fever
--Sunday In the Park with George
--Rainy Days & Mondays (Carpenters)
--Tuesday Weld
--Ash Wednesday (Liz/facelift)
--Sweet Thurday(John Steinbeck)
--Thank God It's Friday

Peace, Maxine

Ruth Anne Adams said...

J and SteveR: Run away!!

It was "Seven" so George Costanza could have a cool name to honor Mickey Mantle.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Also: Tuesdays are now "American Idol" days. Once every 7 days is about right.

nypundit said...

Maxine - what about Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones?

Wickedpinto said...

a metric year would play hell with annual cycles, or at least the way people can relate to them. Using a lunar method would play hell with annual cycles, or at least the way people relate to them. Weeks as a simple method to relate to the progression of the lunar month, in terms of the solar cycle, isn't nearly as dicked up as finding a finite metric of the annual cycle, at least for the way in which people relate to them.

As far as weeks, whatsisface is right, the week IS attached to an astronomical cycle, though it isn't a cycle in and of itself. Perhaps the benefit of the week being a 7 day period of passage is based on the fact that I know exactly when I can actually have a conversation with a woman, based on a 4 week cycle "don't mention feminism next wednesday"

"never mention the word crazy from this monday, to friday, and be VERY careful until at least next tuesday"

"Pull out in time between thursday and sunday, other than that, go to town"

The "week" as seven days has many uses.

CB said...

Marge: [voice over] It all started on the thirteenth hour, of the thirteenth day, of the thirteenth month. We were there to discuss the misprinted calendars the school had purchased.
Homer: [shivering, looking at the calendar] Lousy Smarch weather.

Sanjay said...

Professor Althouse, six _rocks._ It's divisible by a lot. So you could work out every other day --- and it'd be the same days every week. Or water your plants every third day --- and you'd know from the calendar whether or not it was a "water your plants" day. And so on.

Mack said...

I suppose the six day week has potential to more stealthily raise the ratio of weekend time too, assuming we cut off a weekday. That almost seems too hectic, though -- the weeks would fly by. My vote still goes with 5 + 3 for 8. I think this would make a good presidential platform.

Ann Althouse said...

Good idea, Mackan. Could use the Beatles song "8 Days a Week" to promote it.

Eli Blake said...

One of the funniest cartoons I ever saw was a Beetle Bailey cartoon, where he had worked KP for a whole week. On the last day of the week, he is saying "I'm glad there are no more days left in this week." In the next frame, he's checking the bulletin board, and says, "GRUNSDAY!??"

In any case, however we got to seven, the world is so interconnected now what with financial markets and travel and business meetings, etc. that I doubt if we will get away from seven. What will be interesting is in the year 3000 AD when people are living on other worlds, with different rotation times, will they object to being tied to our days, years and and hours?

One time issue that is becoming an issue with increasing globalization though: meeting times. People can now meet all over the world and talk to each other directly. It's not so bad if you're just talking the difference between NY and LA, or even if you have an associate in Europe that may have to stay late in the office for a meeting, or an associate in Hawaii who may have to get up very early for the meeting. But as we get more and more places involved with the business of commerce, it will begin to be very confusing what time anything is going on (someone may have to attend a business meeting via satellite that is set at 2 AM their time.) I suspect that before long you will see more and more places where you can view GMT. International business will demand it so they can coordinate their meetings.

Eli Blake said...

Many businesses are already moving towards something other than the traditional five and two schedule. A lot of them have four day weeks (M-Th or T-F) with ten hour days. Others break up their schedules in other ways (I have a cousin who is a nurse and she works something like three twelve hour shifts, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays, plus four hours on Friday where she goes to meetings and does paperwork.)

I actually like the primeness of seven, because it guarantees that any kind of a rotating schedule (i.e. your turn to cook dinner) will eventually hit every day of the week.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Cripes - the "Calendar of Reason"? Another good excuse to hate the bloodthirsty, stupid, proud, short-sighted, narcissistic French revolutionaries.

When Robespierre and the gods of the Convention handed down the revolutionary calendar, it wasn't "work for 7 days and get 3 off." You worked 9 days to get 1 off. The aristocrats and "counter-revolutionaries" who were guillotined by the thousands could have only dreamed of squeezing as much work out of the peasants.

Long live Reason!

reader_iam said...

However you divide up the year into days, it's still the same year. I'd be mighty suspicious and untrusting of a move to change because somehow I suspect it wouldn't redound to the benefit of everyday people.

Note, already, that someone here suggested 10-day weeks with 3-day weekends. So, that means you work 7 days to get 3 days off; over 30 days you'd get nine days. Under the current system, that's a day less.

In my book, that's moving backwards in time. Hell, I still haven't gotten over how, in my working lifetime, the standard working day for most people has morphed from 9-5 with one-hour paid lunch to 8-5, lunch technically unpaid (yet frequently worked through). It's a philosophical thing; personally, I've mostly worked jobs where that's irrelevant. Still, that's not the point.

Herein I betray the small streak of sympathy toward organized labor that I've managed to retain.

Marghlar said...

Reader: Couldn't we deal with a decrease in days off by decreasing working hours? Or having a scheduled monthly extra day off?

I'm just saying -- how we count our weeks shouldn't necessarily control the number of hours/year we work.

Steven said...

It should be noted that the names of the days of the week in China and Japan correspond to the Roman name days, which were also "planetary" days, in the classical sense of the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. (These names are fairly clearly seen in the modern Spanish names; lunes = Moon, martes = Mars, miercoles = Mercury, jueves = Jove/Jupiter, viernes = Venus, sabado = Saturday).

The English names are similarly derived from the Roman names. Sunday and Monday are obvious, Tuesday through Friday were named after the Germanic "equivalents" of the Roman gods of the day-associated planets (Tiw = Mars, Woden = Mercury, Thor = Jupiter, Freya = Venus), and Saturday was left named after Saturn because the Germanic peoples had no Saturn-equivalent.

Ron said...

Aggggh!!! What would happen to Monday I've got Friday on my mind?

Worthless then, I think!

XWL said...

Maybe everyone would feel better about Tuesday if it were renamed Wimpy.

The Thingite Manifesto on changing the name for Thursday into Thing also suggests names for all the days as follows

Monday=Sodit (that's appropriate)
Tuesday=Wimpy (sounds about right)
Wednesday=Wibble (who could quibble with wibble?)
Thurday=Thing (Sorry Thor, Thing sounds better)
Friday=Poets (my personal favorite, even though I'd like to chang Friday into Funkday)
Saturday=Doobry (hey! no drug jokes)
Sunday=Dontbry (On Sat you Doo, on Sun you Dont, almost sounds Christian)

I can live with 7 day weeks, even if they don't divide well, but I rather like the idea of new names, even if a whole host of songs would become anachronisms.

Robin Goodfellow said...

As others have pointed out, the 7-day week comes from ancient astronomy, not any particular religion. Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn. The names of days of the week in English mostly come from the corresponding deities / planetary body names in Norse mythology.

Steven said...

By the way, this is why we need a space program; reengineering the orbits of the Earth and Moon. By moving the Earth just slightly closer to the Sun, and the Moon just slightly closer to the Earth, we could have a solar year of exactly 364 solar days, divided into 13 synodic months of four weeks of seven days.

Wickedpinto said...

both tuesday and thursday are named after norse gods. in fact, ONE norse god. they are both "thors day" as far as I know.

don't know wednesday, or friday, though I can see, friday being the "last day of the jewish/christen week" being frieda's day, insinuating an end.

Since the Northern Europeans are responsible for as many things as they are, I don't see a problem with that etymology, unless there is a CLEAR etymological definition that counteracts that opinion.

Smilin' Jack said...

Steven said...
By the way, this is why we need a space program; reengineering the orbits of the Earth and Moon. By moving the Earth just slightly closer to the Sun, and the Moon just slightly closer to the Earth, we could have a solar year of exactly 364 solar days, divided into 13 synodic months of four weeks of seven days.

I absolutely agree that in the 21st century we should look to engineering to solve these calendrical problems. However, I think an easier approach would be to move the land mass of Antarctica to the equator...placed properly, this would slow the earth's rotation enough to make the year exactly 364 days, and give us some nice new tropical islands to boot.

We'd still need a space program to tweak the Moon's orbit, but a side benefit of that would be that the Moon's periods of rotation and revolution would no longer coincide, so it wouldn't show us the same boring face all the time.

amba said...

This topic has 40 comments! Funny!

A week is one quarter of the moon. So it does have an astronomical basis. (I don't know if anyone else said this.)