EP 022: I Hate Mondays

EP 026: JIBES, JEERS AND OTHER SICK BURNS Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What do Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare and Pope John XXIII have in common? The answer: they all know how to deliver a sick burn. And now you do too. In this episode we have the history of all sorts of things our mothers told us not to say – said in style.

If you went to school, have a job, read Garfield comic strips, listened to the Boomtown Rats, or are a person, you know that Mondays are an exceedingly average day of the week. Unless you’re one of those very motivated Social Media influencer types who go in for Seize the Day and carpe diem and never-miss-a-Monday quotes laid over sunset beaches and soothing whale noises, in which case I invite you to leave an assignment too late, drink too much whisky and set your alarm for 4am, so that you can reconnect with the rest of us mere mortals on the ground.

But there are a few very real historical questions here. Knowing about them probably won’t improve the quality of your Monday, but it might liven up all the days in between. The first is, how long have Mondays sucked for? And that, unfortunately, is a slightly tricky one to answer.

The short answer is, probably since about the early nineteen hundreds. Before that, the concept of ‘a weekend’ as a period of rest was sorely non-existent. In which case, Monday’s probably felt a little less harsh, but every other day felt a little more so. Put more pessimistically, every day was Monday. (This was a time in which motivational Instagram montages probably would have come in super handy, but were sadly, also, non-existent). Now of course, ancient religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, amongst others, had been observing a Sabbath for a long time before this. But there are two caveats here: firstly, this was only on a Sunday for Christians, and only after Constantine said so in the year 321 CE, and secondly, for most religions, the Sabbath forbade only “unnecessary labour” on the day of rest. I need hardly point out that until the first and second industrial revolutions, a lot of labour was undisputedly necessary, and daily to boot.  With the increase of industrialization and the simplification of labour in the 1900’s however, came a more organized work week, more money and leisure time. Actually a lot of other things cropped up too, most of which were worse than Mondays, but let’s leave that for the moment. Although workers had to work long hours in factories and on production lines, they often had time off in a way that couldn’t be achieved, say, on a farm. Larger numbers of people also tended to have more expendable cash than they’d had previously, opening a window for people to profit off of leisure activities. Consumerism exploded, but so did things like vaudeville, amusement parks, and spectator sports. This was, quite possibly, the worst thing to ever happen for introverts everywhere, for whom leisure was suddenly and irrevocably ruined.

Now technically speaking, Monday’s have been around a lot longer than a hundred odd years. And Like a lot of other things that suck, we made them up.

There’s not a lot of hard historical fact for this, but many people like to speculate that the concept of a seven day week may have originated with the ancient Sumerians, some five thousand years ago. This is largely because they appear to have been practically obsessed with astronomy, astrology and the number seven – and not necessarily in that order. The Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians, and then by the Babylonians, by which time there is some hard evidence for the 30(ish) day monthly cycle, calculated around the lunar cycle. I say ‘ish’, because their months were even more iffy that ours. A new month couldn’t officially start until the new moon had been definitively sighted by the night shift priest, so occasionally, in the event of inclement weather or falling asleep on the job, the month had to drag on a bit. By which time ‘I hate January’ might have been a more common refrain than ‘I hate Monday.’ This, of course, made things like banking and remembering your anniversary very tricky. Fortunately, they had a whole other civic calendar for these petty details, which didn’t make things much easier because a) you had to remember two calendars, and b) it was made up of twelve months of thirty days, which didn’t quite add up to 365 days, so occasionally they’d throw an extra month in just to spice things up and balance it out.  

But even so, there’s very little concrete evidence to suggest that Ancient Babylonia was where the seven day week really kicked off. Other scholars have argued that it was an invention of ancient Judaism, borrowing the rough number of days in a month from the Ancient Babylonians, and organizing it all around the Sabbath. There were a few other rivals to the 7 day week knocking around the ancient World. The Egyptians were quite keen on ten, and the Etruscans had Eight. I’m willing to bet that post-Industrial revolution, these extra days would almost certainly not have fallen on the weekend side of the clock. In which case the song might have gone “I really, really hate Mondays.”

Now speaking of the song, the second important question “What did the Boomtown Rats have against Mondays?” leads us to even darker territory than the ancient world. The song, which reached number one in the UK for four weeks in 1979, and is ranked as the sixth biggest hit there for that year, was based on the tragic Cleveland Elementary School shooting in San Diego that same year. On the morning of January 29th, Brenda Spencer, a 16 year old girl who lived across the street, started shooting at students who were waiting for the principal to open the school gates. The principal and a school custodian were killed, and eight children and a police officer were injured. Brenda was charged as an adult on two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon, and sentenced to life in prison. Rather bizarrely, a reporter managed to reach her on the telephone at her house before she was arrested. Asked why she had committed the crime, she uttered the chilling words “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

Bob Geldof, the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, had, some time previously, been contacted by Steve Jobs to perform for the Apple company, and had been mulling over the concept of electronic chips in one’s brain. This weird combination of circumstances inspired the song’s opening lines: “The silicon chip inside her head Gets switched to overload”

Speaking about how the song came to be, Geldof told journalists:

I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta with Johnnie Fingers and there was a telex machine beside me. I read it as it came out. Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said ‘silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload’.[6] I wrote that down. And the journalists interviewing her said, ‘Tell me why?’ It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy.

In later years, Geldof expressed a regret for making Brenda Spencer famous through the song, but by then it had hit the airwaves and become part of the popular consciousness, and it was too late.

There’s no easy way to segue out of the scope and tragedy of an event as horrific as this, but to avoid turning your Tuesday into a Monday, I’ll leave you with two slightly more cheerful musings.

The first is this: by the end of the 3rd Century CE, the Romans had instituted the seven day week throughout the empire, and they’d attached planetary names which evolved (slowly) into the names we still use today. The days of the week were called Saturn’s Day, Sun’s Day, Moon’s Day, Mars’s Day, Mercury’s Day, Jupiter’s Day and Venus’s Day. Now in this model, the week starts with Saturday and ends with Friday, which would go a long way to screwing up your Saturday, but otherwise the order checks out. The bit that gets weird is summed up nicely by the title of a treatise written by Plutarch in about 100 CE: “Why are the days named after the planets reckoned in a different order from the ‘actual’ order?”

As Greg Jenner puts it in his wonderful book Ask A Historian, “this sounds to me less like a philosophical essay and more like a drunken 3am Google query.”

And he’s not wrong. To back track slightly, there was a lot of debate amongst early astronomers as to the order the planets actually appeared in. Given that they thought the moon was one of them in the first place, this is unsurprising. But they mostly concurred that the order went Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, The Moon. They called this the Chaldean Order, and it was, they thought, the sequence of slowest to fastest moving planets. In which case the week should have gone: Saturday, Thursday, Tuesday, Sunday, Friday, Wednesday, and finished up on Monday. In which case we’d hate Saturday, Thursday or Tuesday, depending on which weekly layout you choose for your calendar, but certainly not Monday.

Plutarch’s treatise was lost, but we think we know the answer: by the time the Romans started sticking their noses in and naming things, they had attached a god to each planet. They wanted to give every god slash planet a turn to be honoured, so the seven day week worked out rather well. (Less well in hindsight, obviously, but never mind that). But they also felt that the first hour of each day – 12am to 1am – was the most important hour of the day, and that this hour was ruled over by a particular planet. And the planet in question was three planets down on the Chaldean order from the day before – so if the Sun ruled over yesterday, today would be the Moon. Then Mars, then Mercury and so on, which gives us the sequence we go in today.

Personally I strongly disagree as to the importance of the 1st hour of the day, and can usually be found in bed, ignoring it.

And the second question I leave you with, which Greg Jenner also raises, is this: why on Earth would Garfield hate Mondays? He’s a cat.

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