- Winter, attested in the same form in Old English around 888, comes through Proto-Germanic’s *wentruz, perhaps ultimately from Proto-Indo-European’s *wed-, *wod, or *ud-, meaning “wet,” or *wind-, meaning “white”
- The early sense of winter, as one of the two major divisions of the year alongside summer, may have been the “rainy or wet season” or “the white season,” due to snow
- Winter has thus been used to mark time, years, age, and the like
As Richard III famously begins:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest genius is the density of his wordplay. In these two, not-so-mere lines, he layers rich metaphors–seasonal, celestial, political, physical–as Gloucester enviously marks the ascension of his brother to the throne after civil war. Yet this winter does not merely chill us with its barren cold. It also weighs us down with its suggestion of old age and affliction.
Winter is itself an old word. Its modern form is unchanged from its Old English ancestor, winter. King Alfred the Great, among his other accomplishments–such as, oh, I don’t know, defending West Saxon against relentless Scandinavian sieges, helping secure England as a nation–translated, among other works, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy from Latin into Old English. Not only did Alfred’s reign help ensure English–and not a Scandinavian tongue like Danish–was actually spoken on the British Isles, but he also helped promote English as a vital, legitimate language of literature and learning. Indeed, the OED’s earliest attestation of winter comes from that translation of Boethius around 888:
On sumera hit bið wearm, & on wintra ceald
Wintra–lest we forget, Old English was a highly inflected language. Wintra, here, is in the dative case. But the sense of the passage still speaks for itself, even over a millennium later.
Winter told time, marking, in contradistinction to summer, a major part of the year. In its older Germanic forms, as Partridge observes from his sources, winter may have meant “the rainy or wet season” or “the white season,” because, quoting a German etymologist, in the Old Germanic period, “time was measured by nights and winters.”
And at the root of winter may be the ancient words for wet and white themselves. Coming from Proto-Germanic’s *wentruz, winter may ultimately derive, though nasalized, from the Proto-Indo-European *wed-, *wod-, or *ud-, meaning “wet.” Or it may come from *wind-, meaning “white.” Water? Wet? Yes, they may be related to winter. As may be otter.
The Indo-European cognates to these roots are astounding. You may recognize them in hydrogen or undulate, but I’ll save those for my upcoming series on “The Four Classic Elements” and on “The Colors.” There is much to look forward to in the new year.
Winter also recorded ages. Concerning livestock, twinter survives dialectically to refer to sheep or cattle two-years old, while thrinter refers to those into a third year. According to Weekley, aenetre, from an-wintre, once meant “one-year-old.” Of people, Weekley notes: “A young lady’s age is reckoned [figuratively] by summers, an old man’s by winters.” How apt.
Mind of Winter
From the most fundamental contrasts–day and night, wet and dry–we form our language for change. Yes, in the word winter I like to think we witness a primordial, phenomenological experience–of time, of the world, of our senses, of our own bodies. This directness, this pre-predicative perspective, to me, is that “mind of winter” Wallace Stevens urges us to take on in “The Snow Man.” Neither winters of discontent nor content, but just “juniper shagged with ice.” That is winter made glorious indeed.