Ever wonder how Fall, Summer, Winter and Spring were named? Everything you need to know about the evolution of our season names in history.
Have you ever wondered why “summer” is called summer or “winter” is referred to as “winter”? No? Me either. Until I had inspiration from my next blog post from my colleague’s Adam Caskey’s 4 year old son. He asked “why does Fall/Autumn have two names when other seasons do not?” That got me thinking, why ARE the seasons named what they are and what is the rhyme or reasoning behind it. Having studied Latin in high school, I figured most were derivations from the Latin language and this was going to be a super simple-wham-bam done type of blog post. However, once I started reading about the seasons and how they received their names, I knew I was waaaaay in over my head in writing this blog. Old English, Middle English, German, Old Norse, Swedish, Gothic, Indo-European, Irish, Welsh, Sanskrit (Insert PCU quote:
Droz: "What's Your major?"
Sanskrit Major: "Sanskrit"
Droz: "Sanskrit. You are majoring in a 5,000-year-old, dead language?"
Sanskrit Major: "Yeah."
Droz: (hand Sanskrit Major Latin paper thesis) "Hmmm... Latin, best I can do".
...continuing on with the blog -- Old Irish, Lithuanian, Modern Livonian (a Finno-Ugrian language)—Yup, got me too—It just got exhausting. Then, I started wondering “well how did we even GET to four seasons?” Once I started my research I realized that most locations orginally operated on a two-season system. Great. Awesome. No turning back now and being a scientist, the question is always “why?”—Sometimes I wish I would just stop at the first “why” and leave it at that.
Well back to the FOUR seasons and why-The earliest indicator seems to be among the Greeks, Antiochus of Athens- a Hellenistic astrologer in the late first to early second centuries A.D. He relates the four seasons to colors, elements, directions, times of life, humors and temperaments (Table 1). His findings became some of the first of scientific learning in medieval times and beyond.
The Roman’s then jumped on board the whole “four season” bandwagon a used the color symbolism with the seasons and associated that with the horse races in the Coliseum. For example: Roman charioteer’s horses were originally dressed in two colors, white (winter) and summer (red). Later on green (Spring) and blue (Fall/Autumn) were added (obviously different colors than what old boy Antiochus of Athens described above-go figure).
Okay, so here we go:
Starting with Winter. Winter is the most prominent of the Old English seasonal terms since it was a figure of speech determining “a year”. Winter is used six times to describe “1 year” in “The Phoenix” and ten times in “Beowulf,” thirty-six times in “Genesis A. Then as time went by, Winter became a metaphor for “adversity” due to the weather associated with it (as we all know this late winter of 2013). Shakespeare’s sonnet 56 ends with the couplet, “Else call it winter, which being full of care/ Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.”
Germanic dialects developed a new word, Sumer—influenced by Celtic *sam (or sem, or sum in Latin meaning “half") and Gothic, the wet season…added the addition of –er (now SumER and WintER instead of Wintrus). Like Sumer literally “half-year.” Sumer or summer is defined in the Middle English Dictionary as 1. The warmest of the four season of the year 2. The warm half of the year, the half of the year during which the days are long—usually used in contrast to winter.
The story “Beowulf” also mentions “summer” using a derivation of its Old English spelling of “gear” where winter gives way to “gear in geardas” or “summer in the courtyards.” (1132b, 1134a) as well as in the poem Guthlac A (1 out of a pair of poems written in celebration of the deeds and death of Saint Guthlac, a popular Mercian saint written sometime between 730 and 740 AD) where with the “sele niwe” (new season) the fields blossomed and “geacas gear budon” (cuckoos announced the summer). “gear” was used in the broader sense to incorporate both Spring and Summer. Just as “winter” is a term to describe adversity, Summer became a term to symbolize “pleasantness.” Now this is the Old English meanings of Winter and Summer – Chinese culture seems to be the completely opposite with Spring meaning “pleasantness” and Autumn meaning “adversity.” But please, I am sure I have bored you enough—I’m not going to touch that.
Okay so I have ONE person still reading this.....now moving on to those other secondary seasons: Fall/Autumn and Spring. Lencten (Old English = Lencten or Middle English = Lenten) was widely used to refer to as “spring” and relates to the season when days begin to lengthen. Lencten does not mean springtime exclusively…..most of the earliest writings, starting after 1275, the meaning is clearly “lent.” However, as time went by, Lencten began and continued to be referred to as springtime as well as Lent as late as the 14th century. However, spring is first recorded as a season word in 1483 by the Catholics meaning "to spring up" as plants tend to do. However as you can see below (Fig. 2*), English went without a word for the season of "spring" for over a century although there were several substitutes over the years (Fig. 3*) there was never one that was clearly decided on and most were short-lived. However, "spring" seemed to be the common denominator Now, just like Autumn and Fall and earlier “Gear” and “Sumer”—it seems that for A WHILE Lent and Lenten (and some even argue "spring--although not in English language) were synonymous and had a period of overlap.
Stay with me now, heading on to the last and most complicated naming of the season—Fall or autumn or is it “harvest”?….Well "Harvest" never really seemed to catch on. German’s wrote “autumni” (derived from the Latin word autumnus) which means “harvest” and refers to the agricultural period when crops are taken in, rather than to a season (Fig 4).
"Autumn" first appears as English word in the late 14th century and was popular with Anglo-Saxon and Early Middle English times. "Autumn" and "Harvest" seemed to coexist as synonyms through the 17th century. "Harvest" coexisted with autumn beginning in the late 15th century but was lost by the 18th century as people gradually moved from working the land to living in towns (Fig. 5).
Fall first appeared in the 17th century but by the 19th century was marginalized as an Americanism. .The exact derivation of “Fall” is unclear however, with the Old English “fiaell or feallan” and the Old Norse “fall” are all possible candidates as all these words have the meaning “to fall from height”. During the 17th century as the English began the emigration to the British colonies in North America, the new settlers took the term “fall” with them. This became the more common term in North America while “Autumn” continued to be the term of the season in Britain.
Whew, so if you made it through all that, not bored out of your mind-you now know more than you EVER needed to know about Sumer (or is it "Summer) and Winter/Wintrus-the primary seasons, and Fall/Harvest/Autumn and Spring/Lecten/Lent/Ver, the secondary seasons....exhausting.
*I could have not written this article without the following references:
-"Meaning and Beyond" by Ernst Leisi Zum (Fig. 2,3,4,5),
-"Folk Taxonomies in Early English" by Earl R. Anderson (Table 1)