As I look out my door, I see most of the leaves have fallen, the nights are very chilly, and there truly is frost on the pumpkins. As the end of the fall season approaches, I was wondering how the seasons got their names and simplistically thought I could come up with logical derivatives for them; but were my simple assumptions correct? The plants do spring forth in the spring, and leaves fall in the autumn, but what about the other two seasons? So let’s look a bit closer and see if we can figure out where these interesting names actually came from.
Winter in the northern hemisphere encompasses the dates December 21st to March 21st, approximately. According to most sources I could find, to determine where the word winter came from, we have to look back at the Proto-Germanic language, which was derived from Indo-European languages which pre-date the Roman Empire! In that language, the fourth and coldest season of the year was referred to as ‘wintruz.’ Other variations were adopted, as other cultures and languages sought to name the season using their own vocabulary. So ‘vinter’ (Danes and Swedes), ‘wintar’ (Old High German and later Old Saxon and Old English), ‘wentruz’ (Proto-Germanic) and ‘vetr’ (Norse) variations were born. The basis of all these words is likely an aberration of the word ‘wet’, which makes sense.
Spring lasts until June 21st in the north. This is the time of rebirth with long sunny days and warm nights. Originally, this season wasn’t called spring at all, but rather lent or the Lenten season. Yet, despite our immediate presumption, this does not follow the biblical reference but rather comes from an Old English word ‘lengten’, which means longer or greater in length, referring to the length of daylight. In the 1300s, ‘lent’ was replaced with springing time, which was eventually shortened to springtime then spring. The Norse referred to ‘springa’. Old Saxon used ‘springan’, and the Middle English language referenced ‘springen’, meaning to jump, spread, grow, or burst forth. In the Proto-Germanic language, reference is made to ‘sprengen’, meaning to hurry or hasten, while the Greek used ‘spertchesthai’. Wow – complicated!
Summer runs from June 21st until September 21st. It looks like many languages used a similar word to describe this hottest season of the year. Here we have in Sanskrit (sama = season), Middle English (sumer), Old English (sumar), Proto-Germanic (sumra), Old High German, Old Norse and Dutch (zomer or somer) and German (sommer) – all likely originally derived from the Proto-Indo-European language word ‘sem’, meaning together or one.
One source cites, autumn (September 21st to December 21st) comes from the Latin language (autumnus), itself derived from Proto-Indo-European words for cold (h₃ewǵ) and dry (h₂sows) and likely linked to the archaic Etruscan language. Other cultures referred to ‘autumpne’ (Old French and Middle English). So far, so good, but this is one season where across cultures, there was little consistency in the derivatization of the word. For example, the Greeks referred to the waning of summer as phthinoporan, Old Irish references ‘fogamar’ (under winter), while the Lithuanian culture referred to ‘rudas’ or ‘ruduo’, meaning reddish, perhaps referring to the colour of some leaves. Where we get our English reference to a ruddy complexion. The word fall is most likely simply a modernization of the term ‘falling of the leaves’ as one would suspect, but I couldn’t find a conclusive derivation for this term.
Well, whatever you call them, I’m glad we live in a climate where we have four distinct seasons we can celebrate in different ways.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.