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The Seasons, part 1: spring and fall

By Anatoly Liberman


Since this blog is now in the seventh year of its existence (if I remember correctly, it started in March 2006), some questions tend to recur. Our correspondent wants to know the origin of the word winter. Long ago I touched on winter and summer, but briefly, in the “gleanings,” so that it may be useful to devote a short series to the Germanic names of the seasons, leave these posts in the archive, and thus avoid possible repetition.

One expects the names of the seasons to reflect changes in nature and in human activities related to the agricultural cycle and the growth of plants. Although, in principle, this expectation is most reasonable, such names are not always transparent. We may begin with two easy examples. Fall “autumn” goes back to the phrase fall of the leaf. Nothing could be more natural. The noun spring is an obvious congener of the verb spring “leap, bound.” It signifies rising, whether it be of a place where a stream has its source or of the period when the year starts. Springtide and springtime clarify the calendar sense even further. The German for “spring” is Frühling, from früh “early” (-ling is a suffix). English speakers may not realize how spring and fall were coined (children are usually surprised when they hear the explanation), but no German will have doubts about Frühling (compare Engl. firstling “the first product or offspring”). Frühling appeared in German only in the fifteenth century, and it has a synonym Frühjahr (Jahr “year”). Their analogs Spätling and Spätjahr “autumn” (spät “late”) have not been accepted by the Standard.

The origin of some other terms is also clear; yet a word that has existed in the language for many centuries may change its pronunciation so drastically that light at best comes from the earliest recorded form. Today only the ecclesiastic sense of Lent is current, but in the past it was the main word for “spring.” Lent surfaced as lencten, that is, lengten: the season got its name because in spring days lengthen. Below, we will return to the second syllable of the Old English noun (-ten). Here it will be enough to mention German Lenz, a cognate of Engl. Lent, and its exact counterpart. German dialects have preserved -g- after -n-: compare Langsi, Längsi, and so forth. Lenz is a common German family name. Those who had the good (and nowadays rare) luck to study physics at school will remember the Joule-Lenz Law.

Not surprisingly, such a homey word as lencten itself superseded another name of spring. There may have been an ancient Germanic goddess, whose Old English name was Eastre, a cognate of Latin Aurora. Her feast was celebrated at the vernal equinox. Perhaps spring was also called something like this. Today only Engl. Easter and German Ostern remind modern speakers of that goddess. The adjective vernal returns us to Latin ver “spring.” Old Icelandic vár (its modern continuation is vor), Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish vår testify to the existence of a solid Germanic cognate of ver; however, it has not stayed outside Scandinavian (we cannot even be sure that it existed on the continent).

Sometimes we know only part of a word’s history. For example, autumn came to English from Latin, via French (no problem here), but its Latin etymology remains a riddle. Attempts to connect Latin autumnus with the verbs avere “be well” and augere “increase, grow” (with reference to vegetation) are seldom remembered guesswork. Modern dictionaries suggest that Latin borrowed autumnus from Etruscan — another uninspiring guess. We are in better luck with German Herbst “autumn” since it has a most revealing English cognate, namely harvest. It follows that German allowed the word for “harvest” to acquire a more general sense. The opposite path, from “autumn” to “harvest,” is possible but unlikely, because the names of the seasons always have derivative senses (in the fall leaves fall, in spring new life is born, and the like). Besides that, harvest is related to Latin carpere “pluck” and Greek karpós “fruit.” Harpoon undoubtedly has the same root, and the Germanic name of the harp, most probably, belongs here too (compare the verb harp in he always harps on this theme: pluck, pluck, pluck). Icelandic haust, Swedish höst, etc. “autumn,” which continue the same etymon, have changed almost beyond recognition.

It will be seen that some names of the seasons appeared or at least became known a few centuries ago (for instance, German Frühling), others (such as German Herbst) go back to the clouded Germanic past, while the traces of some can no longer be recovered (this is what happened to Latin autumnus); nor is borrowing too rare: autumn reached English from French, and it may have reached Latin from Etruscan. Simple metaphors and metonymies often underlie the names of the seasons (fall, spring, harvest). The problem is that linguists rarely have the means to reconstruct those ancient figures of speech. We expect winter to mean “cold” and summer to mean “warm”; our expectations may or may not come true. The Latin for “summer” was aestus; this word also meant “heat”; compare Engl. aestival or æstival “pertaining to the summer or the summer solstice.” The ancient root of aestus must have meant “burn”; it can be detected in Engl. oast “kiln”, ether, and a few other borrowed words.

The prehistoric Indo-Europeans lived in the northern hemisphere; that much is certain. Consequently, their idea of summer and winter must have been roughly similar to those one still encounters in Europe and Asia. Even if the nomadic Indo-Europeans took over some names of the seasons from non-Indo-European speakers, the subjugated tribes were also the inhabitants of the northern part of the globe. This circumstance rules out the idea of a hot winter and a cold summer. All the rest is shrouded in mystery. Today I’ll mention only one detail relevant to our subject.

The ancient Germanic peoples could have had an old Indo-European word (and such words are always respectable in the eyes of language historians) and replaced it with a neologism, as the Germans replaced Lenz with Frühling. The Latin for “day” is dies (two syllables: di-es; the root is di-), familiar from diurnal, diet, and many other nouns and adjectives. The “Teutons” did have a cognate of this Indo-European word. This follows from Gothic sinteins “daily,” which is a compound: sin- is related to Latin semper “always” and -teins (it does not occur elsewhere) is a cognate of di-es. Very probably, -ten in Old Engl. lengten, the etymon of Lent, is also a relic of the same root, so that the word was made up of two elements: “long” and “day.”

However, Proto-Germanic discarded the old noun. Wherever we look, we find dags (Gothic, fourth century), Old Icelandic dagr, German Tag, Engl. day, and the rest. Its root may have meant “shine” or “heat.” If so, the reference was to “broad daylight,” as opposed to the darkness of night. The etymology of day is disputable, but what matters is the result: we witness people who had an inherited Indo-European word and let a synonym oust it. This synonym may also have an ancient root; however, there is no certainty. We constantly run into the Lenz~ Frühling, lencten ~ spring, and autumn~ fall situation and the disappearance of the cognates of ver ~ vár outside the Scandinavian languages.

Such are the patterns in the history of words for the seasons. Armed with this knowledge, we can now look at summer and winter. We will do so next week. In the meantime, let us celebrate our own rite of spring and look at Botticelli’s Primavera.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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2 Responses to “The Seasons, part 1: spring and fall”
  1. [...] ancient Indo-Europeans lived in the northern hemisphere (see the previous post), but, although this conclusion is certain, it does not follow that they divided the year into four [...]

  2. [...] note I will close the miniseries “Seasons.” I ended up with spring, the source of new life (see the pregnant Primavera), a soft summer, the fall, in which deciduous trees lose their foliage, autumn, from French, (?) [...]

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