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Weathering the Weather in Word History

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Jürgen Voigtländer

    Endlich habe ich nach 60 Jahren den Zungenbrecher gefunden, den ich aus meiner Schulzeit kannte:
    I wonder wether the the wether will weather the weather, or…

    the wether deutsch: der Widder
    to weather deutsch: wittern,riechen

    Das war in keinem Wörterbuch zu finden!

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