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Weathering the Weather in Word History

by Anatoly Liberman

The shape of the word weather has changed little
since it was first attested in the year 795. In Old English, it had d
in place of th; the rest, if we ignore its present day spelling with ea,
is the same. But its range of application has narrowed down to “condition of
the atmosphere,” while at that time it also meant “air; sky; breeze; storm.”
Its cognates in the other Old Germanic languages had similar senses. In
Scandinavian, “direction of the wind” occurred so often that a comparable
Middle English meaning may have been a borrowing from the language of Danish
and Norwegian settlers. The modern verb weather has retained part of
the word’s ancient semantic wealth. Compare weather a cape (that is,
“sail to the windward of”), weather wood (= “leave it in the open until
it is ready for use”), and the connotations of the noun weathering. The
meaning of the idiom under the weather should also be considered in this
context. In the sagas, the Old Icelandic cognate of weather regularly
meant “storm,” so that to a thirteenth century Icelander Engl. to weather
a storm
would have sounded like weathering the weather in the title
of this post—a mildly amusing tautology (“I wonder whether the wether will
weather the weather, or whether the weather the wether will kill”). In German,
Gewitter, from Wetter, a collective noun that, according to its
structure, can be understood as “all kinds of weather” means only “storm.”

It would be natural to suggest that at one time the word weather
had a neutral meaning and that later, since people seldom speak about weather
when the sun shines brightly, it began to mean “bad weather,” and in the
language of seafaring people also “wind, adverse wind, storm.” This would be a
reasonable suggestion, and one might hope to find confirmation of it in
etymology. However, etymology provides an ambiguous answer. The most
conspicuous cognate of weather seems to be Old Slavic vedru,
which, surprisingly, means “good weather,” and such is the meaning of its reflexes
(continuations) in the modern Slavic languages. Were the Slavs different from
the rest of the world and paid attention to weather mainly when it was good?
Perhaps we are missing something. After all, in all the modern Scandinavian
languages the cognate of Engl. weather means what it does in English and
at first sight presupposes a good attitude toward “the condition of the
atmosphere,” because with a negative prefix it means “bad weather”; cf. Danish vejr
“weather” and ovejr “unweather.” Or is Slavic vedru a deceptive
look-alike, unrelated to the Germanic word? The origin of vedru is not
quite clear. If not akin to weather, it may be a cognate of water:
Russian vedro, with stress on the second syllable, means “pail” and is undoubtedly
related to water.

It has also been suggested that both weather and vedru
are derivatives of wee, the sound imitative root of the word wind. Weather
and wind are of course connected, and storms are inseparable form winds, but
fair weather does not look like a good partner of heavy winds, which
complicates our search for the origin of vedru. (This reconstruction
also encounters some phonetic difficulties, but their discussion would take us
too far afield.) At the end of the story we are not much closer to the truth
than we were at the beginning. We still do not know how the earliest word for
“weather” was coined. Yet one thing is clear. That word did not have the
abstract meaning “condition of the atmosphere,” a meaning that reminds us of
Eliza’s first appearance in the drawing room of Professor Higgins’s mother. It
must have meant “high wind,” “friendly breeze,” “a cloudless sky,” or something
similar. The abstract meaning is the product of later development. For some
reason, weather is one of the few abstract nouns in English that can
never be used with the indefinite article. Many ways exist for expressing the
idea of “storm.” On some quiet and peaceful day I will turn to the word tempest
and its ties with temperature and temperament and the rest.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Next week he will answer readers’ questions – email your’s in to blog.us@oup.com.

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