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Year In, Year Out

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By Anatoly Liberman

Etymologist, working sub specie aeternitatis, that is, routing among withered but durable leaves and dead (immortal?) roots, has seasonal stirrings. Of course, every month there are gleanings, but how much can a tiller, an inhabitant of a northern state, glean from barren furrows in December? Yet one more post and the year will be over—something to celebrate.

“When forty winters Every now and then even the Oxford shall besiege thy brow/ And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field…”, then there will be nothing to glean, or such is the intimation of the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 2. From early on, the Germanic peoples counted time in winters. The Slavs do it in summers, whereas in ancient India the corresponding unit was autumn. As can be seen, the choice was not predetermined. The initial meaning of words for seasons is sometimes obvious. Thus, perfectly transparent are Engl. fall, called this from the fall of leaves, and spring, which reminds us that plants will soon arise (compare offspring). Gothic asans “summer” means “work,” apparently, “fieldwork” (Eng. earn may be related to it). German Herbst “autumn” is a cognate of Engl. harvest and Latin carpere “pluck” (this is the same carpere as in carpe diem and may even be the same as the English verb carp, if the latter, whatever its ultimate origin, is a borrowing from the Latin verb). Summer, judging by the adjective and adverbs allied to it, must have designated “half-year,” so again everything is clear, but winter is, as usual, the cause of much discontent or at least disagreement.

The non-Germanic cognates of winter (if such exist) must be hidden among the words in other Indo-European languages beginning with w-. Experience tells us that to guess the origin of a word, we must know the nature of the thing it denotes. We wonder what the mental image of winter was among the remote ancestors of the Germanic speakers. And if the word has Indo-European ancestry, what kind of winter did the evasive nomads who “Indo-Europeanized” most of Eurasia have at home? Did they divide the year into four seasons? Did they associate winter with frost and snow or with rain? Perhaps winter is related to Latin unda (from the reconstructed form wunda “wave,” as in Undine, the name of a water spirit, and undulation). If so, then it is also related to wet, water, and several verbs meaning “to flow”; the conclusion suggests itself that the modern speakers of the Germanic languages came from an area where winter was mild and humid. But winter, a word whose sound shape has hardly changed in 2000 years (Goths called winter wintrus as early as the 4th century), bears a strong resemblance to wind and to Old Irish find “white.” So was winter thought of as windy or white, rather than wet? The answer could be given if we had precise information about the homeland of those who coined the word winter. Historians and archeologists hope that etymologists will show them the way and “excavate” this homeland by linguistic means. Linguists, in turn, turn to archeologists and historians for help. Their cooperation is fruitful. At many congresses, sections on archeology and linguists run side by side, and everybody is happy because, among other things, this type of research is interdisciplinary (no other buzzword of our postmodernist time is more successful in opening the doors of grant agencies and warming the cockles of administrators’ hearts). It would be wrong to say that historical linguists and archeologists have nothing to say to each other, but what they say is seldom, if ever,” final.” Such is the nature of the cause. Etymology gives specialists in prehistory ideas that cannot be definitive; at best, it produces a few reasonable alternatives. For the moment the wet hypothesis has most supporters, and it may be correct, but the majority opinion need not be true.

We seem to know more about the derivation of the word year. Even though speakers of the Germanic languages counted years by winters, they, like probably all people living in areas with moderate climate, identified the beginning of the year with spring. The most ancient meaning of year has been preserved by several of this word’s cognates, for instance, Slavic iara “spring,” as well as Classical Greek hora “time, season” and especially “spring” (the initial h of hora goes back to i, pronounced like y in Engl. year). Latin borrowed the Greek word. Later, the Romans’ hora, via French, reached English and became hour; horologe and horoscope are also loans from French. (It is a curious fact that in none of those French or English words was h- ever sounded; the letter h embellishes Engl. hour and Fr. heure in deference to their Latin etymon. Middle English did well with ure and oure, and Old French had ore and eure. The less spelling masters bother about etymology, the better.) Germanic cognates of Latin annus “year” have been recorded, but not in English. Annual, annuity, superannuated, perennial, and biennial are straight from French or Latin. Both year and annus seem to have the same root as the Indo-European verb for “go.” Year “spring” was a name marking the arrival of a new cycle of the ever-revolving season.

In dealing with a cycle, it is tempting to end where one has begun. So here is a line from another sonnet, this time No. 97: “What old December’s bareness every where!” But that bareness shall pass. Another spring will come and bring us a new flowering of etymology and interdisciplinary studies.


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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. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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