the four seasons, part I (spring)

Fast Mash

  • As the name for the season, spring replaces lent in the Middle Ages
  • In 1500s, English has spring of the year and spring of the leaf 
  • Spring comes from Old English verb meaning to “leap, burst forth”
  • Lent comes from Germanic roots meaning “long days”

As the Anglo-Saxons would say, I am now one winter old. Technically, I have many more winters under my belt than that, but I only have notched one Minnesotan winter. Well, since we rewrote the record books on that one with, oh, I don’t know, about 23 inches of snow in the lovely springtime month of April alone in the Twin Cities, maybe veteran Minnesotans will award me one-and-half.

But I’ll get back to this seasonal time-telling later. I can’t control the weather, but I can at least control when I get to write about it. And right now, I’m into this spring business.


This time of year, school marquee signs, advertisements for nurseries and home improvement stores, and all too many captions of Instagram photos of tulips bear the clever phrase: “Spring has sprung.” (I, for one, can’t help but think of a certain lyric by Sir Mix-A-Lot whenever I read those words, but that’s a different matter.) Yet what might seem like fun wordplay is actually an accurate etymological statement. For the name for the season, spring, ultimately comes from the same verb.

By the 16th-c. if not well earlier (possibly as early as the late 14th-c.), English speakers stopped saying lent (earlier, lenten and lencten) and started saying spring to refer to what some call the first season of the year and others the season after winter.

For this difference, see spring in Romance languages, which emphasize first-ness. French has printemps, from Latin primus tempus, or “first time/season.” Spanish and Italian both have primavera, from Latin primus ver, “first spring,” which I hope makes your next order at the Olive Garden easier. My friend and German Ph.D. candidate informed me that German has Frühling, which contains früh (early) and the noun-making suffix -ling (now reserved for people; see changeling).  

Of course, there is the issue of how cultures differently mark and need to mark seasons. For instance, there are simple divisions between dry and wet seasons in some tropical cultures, as compared to the sophisticated subdivisions employed by Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

Quick tangent. I was working with a student from Ethiopia and asked her if her native language, Amharic, had a word for snow. She couldn’t offer one, simply saying, “Snow is…snow.” Indeed, there are some high peaks that get snow in the Ethiopian Highlands. And I did find an expression for snow (yäbärädo bnany, one transliterations from Amharic script). But other than identifying the b-r-d portion as some kind of trinconsonantal root, my trail stopped here. Snow is not an everyday word there, but since many peoples from that region of Africa resettle in, say, Minneapolis, there must be some practical need, not to mention spiritual/mythical/folkloric possibilities that snow-capped mountain peaks can inspire. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole. Languages constantly develop words for new concepts, often as loanwords from an existing tongue. Latin is believed to have picked up carrus from a Gaulish word, karros, which named a kind of Celtic two-wheeled chariot. (Chariot derives form this. So does car.) This is old business. And new. Look at words for hotel and automobile across many modern languages. 

Anyways, the Online Etymology Dictionary marks out several phases of spring‘s development, which help illustrate the rising-up-and-out-to-life-ness of spring:

  • Late 14th-c., springing time
  • Late 15th-c., spring-time
  • Around the 1520s and 1530s, spring of the year and spring of the leaf
  • 1540s-1600s, spring 

How about spring in the general sense?

Old English had springan, which primarily meant “to leap, jump, bound”; “to burst forth, fly out”; or “to grow, rise up.” The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology (ODE) notes “originate” as far back as the 12th-c.

This has and remains a very productive word, from wellsprings and offsprings and springboards to spring tides, springing traps, springing birds, and springy coils. To Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and sprung cricket bats to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s getting sprung. And vivid phrases like I could spring for some White Castle right now. (Four-hit combo. Points for referencing Hopkins, cricket, and Sir Mix-A-Lot in the same sentence. Bonus points for following it with White Castle reference.)

I think it’s wonderful that we still retain so many of these senses today. Spring a leak. He has a spring in his step. The little boy was afraid a monster would spring out of his closet. I’m sorry I was late; something sprung up. Just as I was finishing up, my boss sprang a new project on me. Ah! Behold the beauties of English phrasal verbs, verbs that occur with prepositions. And behold the virtues of polysemy. (I just wanted to show off a little bit there. I like everyday words, but big ones are cool, too.)

Of more recent consequence, we have the so-called “Arab spring.” As best as I can tell, George Packer is attributed with the first usage of the phrase “Arab spring” (or, more accurately, the possibility of one like that which we were witnessing ~2011, around the time when the phrase for this referent as such crystallized) in a 2003 New York Times Magazine article:

The war [in Iraq], which is vastly unpopular in the Arab world, is far more likely to improve the fortunes of the Islamists, he says, and provoke governments to tighten their grip, than to ventilate the region with an Arab spring.

This phrase continues in the tradition of “Springtime of the People” (European revolutionary efforts in 1848, a translation of the German Völkerfrühling), the Prague spring of 1968, the Seoul Spring of 1979, and others. As Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus concludes on a thoughtful piece on this phenomenon:

These springtime labels all owe their rhetorical power to a master metaphor that transfers the qualities of seasonal change to political change.

And it’s not difficult to imagine how the season of new life, new growth, and longer days owes its name to the action of leaping and bursting forth. Indeed, the Online Etymology Dictionary and ODE link spring to the Proto-Indo-European *sprengh-/*spreŋʒ, which had a sense of rapid movement or hastening. Skeat, however, defines the original sense as “to split or crack” (as in budding plants) and sees it as allied to roots for spark and even speak.

Whatever the case, these reconstructions point us again to the ways in which words embody the physical, the phenomenological, the poetic. I can’t help but envision a gorgeous, Terrence Malick-styled time-lapse sequence of a flower, from cell to bloom. But for me  WIlliam Carlos Williams’ did it best in his opening poem in Spring and All: 

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken (ll. 20-27)

It is worth nothing that many critics read much of this poem as taking a hit at T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” published not but a year before, and which famously begins, “April is the cruellest month…” This turns on its head the beginning of Chaucer’s “General Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales: “Whan that April with his showres soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote…” So, speaking of cool words, this tradition is called reverdie, French for “re-greening,” a poetic genre that sings the arrival of spring.

So much depends on…one syllable.


Now, what about lent? The word is preserved in Lent , the solemn, ~40-day Christian period of prayer, giving alms, and fasting (i.e., enduring the excruciating pain of giving up chocolate, wine, swearing, Facebook, or the like) ahead of Easter Sunday. Originally, the word simply meant the season, “spring.” Dutch still uses it with lente. German has Lenz, although it is largely poetical.

Etymologically, lent ultimately develops from a Proto-Germanic root *laŋgaz /*lanngaz (long) *tina (day). It carried the sense of the lengthening of the day. Indeed, length/lengthen are related. The former root, as I suspect is apparent, sprung the long lineage of long.  The latter, tina, has some notable cognates, including the Latin dies. Despite appearances, the English day is probably not related, but that’s a story for another…day.

Why was Lent applied and retained for the liturgical season (note the metaphorical development of season)? The ODE notes that the “ecclesiastical sense of the word is peculiar to English.” In Latin, the language of the Roman Catholic Church, Lent is referred to as Quadragesima, or “fortieth” (day before Easter). How Lent came to be forty days is actually pretty complicated, by my reckoning, almost as complicated as calculating when Easter falls.

But, in the late Middle Ages, vernacular English gained ground (vis-à-vis Latin) as a legitimate language of learning, literature, and Christianity. English translations of the Bible (famously by Wycliffe and Tyndale) and sermons and worship in English, coupled with Easter usually falling in the springtime month of March, likely helped propel this labeling of Lent.

So, why did spring replace lent? Who’s to say. Both words display Germanic origins and seem equally economical. And I’m sure both words co-existed in one form or another side by side, as synonyms do, for some time. Language changes—constantly, in sound and sense.

Could there be some confusion with lent as a noun and lent as a past participle for lend? I doubt that. Originally, the infinitive of the verb was lænan (to lend),  and was lende in the past tense and lent as a past participle. On the basis of analogy to words like send and bend, Middle English established the d in the root of the verb in the 15th-c.. Besides, languages manage ambiguity pretty well, it seems to me.

We must think, too, about how much change England underwent in the Middle Ages., when lent cedes to spring. And could major events in the 16th-c., from the Protestant Reformation to the proliferation of printing, have diverged their ways once and for all? Perhaps at some point the ecclesiastical associations of lent hardened, boosting an already ascendant spring. By chance, usage, and a lot of time, lent referred to the liturgical, spring the seasonal.

My Google Ngrams on Lent and spring as nouns yielded some interesting result, although we must read these results with extreme caution, especially since spring has many meanings as a noun other than one we are concerned with here:

  • Spring spikes in 1593 (and in the late 16th-c. more generally) and again in 1778
  • Lent spikes in 1636 and 1662, although a far smaller percentage (at already small percentages)

I’ll let you muse on those dates.

The Vernal Word

I love the physicality implied by the ancient meanings of spring and lent. Little green buds do seem to burst forth so suddenly, so instantaneously, so imperceptibly. And the day’s elongation does seem to gradually dawn on us with advent of the season. The metaphors may be dead on our lips or ears, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of etymological digging—it doesn’t take a whole lot of environmental noticing—to quicken them anew.

It’s curious, though. Of course, spring means different things and times to different peoples, climatologically, culturally, etc. But in spring and lent are sedimented immediate, environmental saliences: the bursting of new life out of barren brown, the lengthening of the day after dark, winter nights. But how come a sense of the greening of earth didn’t get signified? How come a sense of the warming of the day didn’t get encoded? These musings are not the work of historical linguistics, obviously. They are romantic speculations, but hey, spring is in the air, after all.


3 thoughts on “the four seasons, part I (spring)

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