It’s like comparing apples to…pumpkins?

Autumn means pumpkins. They sit atop our porch steps and grace our desks in miniature. Pumpkin pies cool on our windows sills. Pumpkin-shaped candies overstuff our grocery shelves. Pumpkin spice flavors our lattes – and just about everything else marketers can get their hands on. Let’s carve into this word pumpkin and scoop out all of its timely etymological seeds.

“Pumpkin.” It’s Greek to me. Image by Kyle Tait, courtesy of


The earliest record the Oxford English Dictionary finds for pumpkin comes in the form of an insult. In 1647, Nathaniel Ward, a caustic-witted, English-born Puritan who fled to (now) Massachusetts, published a pamphlet opposing the tolerance of other Christian sects, among other topics. In one edition of his screed, called The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America, Ward bemoans the “pumpkin-blasted brains” of his fellow settlers, whose diet, apparently, depended too much upon this fruit. (Yes, the pumpkin is technically a fruit.) And indeed, Boston, Mass. was nicknamed Pumpkinshire in the 18th century. 

Pumpkin pie, meanwhile, dates to the 1650s. By the 1680s, pumpkin, thanks to its rotundity, was mocking “stupid” people, as was pumpkin-head come centuries later. Pumpkin, of course, was repurposed by the 1900s as a term of endearment. And in 19th-century US slang, saying someone or something was “some pumpkins” was to call them  “important” or “impressive.”

Pumpkin is a variant of pumpion, itself an alteration of pompion. Pompion, attested in the early 1500s, is borrowed from the French pompon, which names a kind of melon. Pumpkins are native to the Americas, so, when English settlers encountered this squash, they likened it to the plump fruit they were more familiar with back home. English speakers ended up fashioning the ending of pompion with -kin, a Germanic-based, diminutive suffix that survives in some surnames like Watkins and handful of words, including napkin.

The French pompon grew out of the Latin pepō, in turn from the Greek πέπων (pepon); both named types of gourds and melons eaten when ripe. Ripe is the key: Greek’s pepon meant “ripe” (or “yellow”), stemming from the verb πέσσειν (pessien), “to cook.” This pessein and cook, believe it or not, were concocted in the same etymological kitchen: they share the Proto-Indo-European root *pekw-, “to cook” or “ripen.” Concocted and kitchen also come from this root, thanks to a series of complicated sound changes that took place long ago.

And inside melon hides the very word pumpkin. Melon is shorted from Latin’s mēlopepō, from the Greek μηλοπέπων (melopepon). Melopepon marries μῆλον (melon) and πέπων (pepon). As for melon? That actually means apple, making melopepon “ripe apple.”

So, pumpkin means “melon,” and melon means “apple.” The ancients really need to get their fruit and veggies sorted out. This Halloween, I think I’ll just stick with candy.

m ∫ r ∫

the four seasons, part iv (winter)

Fast Mash

  • 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 *wentruzwinter may ultimately derive, though nasalized, from the Proto-Indo-European *wed-, *wod-, or *ud-, meaning “wet.” Or it may come from *wind-, meaning “white.” WaterWet? 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.

m ∫ r ∫

the four seasons, part III (fall/autumn)

Fast Mash

  • As a name for the third season of the year, fall is favored by American English and autumn by British English, perhaps due to historic separation by the Atlantic Ocean 
  • Originally “fall of the leaf,” fall is from the Germanic-rooted Old English verb, faellan, likely from the Proto-Indo-European *pol; Latin’s fallere (trip, deceive) is related, giving English words like false, fail, or fallible
  • Autumn comes from the Old French autumpne, from Latin’s autumnus; the Latin may be connected to augere, meaning to increase, as crops at harvest do, or from an unknown Etruscan source
  • By the 16th century, both autumn and fall were displacing the original term for the season, harvest, from Old English’s haerfest, which the OED attests in 902 and is probably from the Proto-Indo-European *kerp, related to Latin’s carpe diem

“That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or a few do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, ” Shakespeare plaintively–or persuasively, depending on your perspective–sonneted on man’s impermanence.

But what do we call that time of year?

A little late? I know. Most of the leaves have fallen by now–or, in SoCal, most of us have pulled out sweaters for those bone-chilling, 50-degree days. But, each year, as we swap out Satan for Santa, aren’t we always asking ourselves: What ever happened to Thanksgiving?

Let’s linger over leftovers and talk about harvest. Or what was once called harvest.

Fall & Autumn

This side of the pond, we call the third season of the year fall, as opposed to the autumn of British English. Why did this come to be? Some attribute the difference to the Atlantic Ocean, for both fall and autumn were displacing English’s original word for the season, harvest, in the 16th century, around the time when the British were settling parts of North America. Perhaps certain linguistic idiosyncrasies, such as a preference for fall, settled well. Check out this short Slate article by Forrest Wickman for more on this difference–including a little of bit of British envy.

As first attested in 1545, fall appeared as “fall of the leaf,” mirroring the origin of spring (“spring of the leaf”), which I picked apart earlier.

Fall as a noun–whether of rain, sword, height, or humanity–comes from fall as a verb, handed down from Old English’s feallan, which could mean “to fall,” “fail,” “decay,” or “die.” Through a Proto-Germanic root of *fallan or *fallanan, etymologists trace the Old English verb back to Proto-Indo-European. The Online Etymology dictionary posits *pol, meaning “to fall.” It has some ancient cognates: Armenian p’ul (downfall); Lithuanian puola/pulti (fall); and Old Prussian aupallai (to find; literally, to fall upon). Shipley, however, glosses the Indo-European root as “to slide,” maybe trying to better articulate the connection historical linguistics entertain to the Latin fallere, variously meaning “to cause to fall,” “trip,” “mislead,” or “deceive.”

You might recognize Latin’s fallere in such derivatives as falsefail, faultfallacy, or fallible

Falling, deceiving, dying–down is bad. The sun goes down, ushering in nightfall? Bipedal man falls down, causing injury? Observations of the damage–or death–due to gravity? Perhaps these etymological connections lend support to Lakoff and Johnson’s The Metaphors We Live By, in which the authors theorize overarching conceptual metaphors (such as up is good, down is bad) that organize our understanding of our experience–and the language we use to express it.

The OED’s earliest attestation of autumnautumpne–comes from a work of translation by Chaucer in 1374. While its form has shed more sounds than a maple sheds leaves in October, English plucks autumn from Romance names for the seasons: the Old French autompne, in turn from Latin’s autumnussometimes documented as auctumnus.

The origin for autumnus is not certain. Some have proposed a connection to augere (to increase; think augment), whose past participle is auctus (think auction). This does make some agricultural sense, with the increase of crops’ yield at harvest during fall. Or autumn.

Shipley argues for an earlier Latin vertumnus, noting the change from warmth to cold in its relationship to vertere (to turn; think convert, divert, verse, and the many others in the root’s big family). To avoid confusion with the Etruscan god of the seasons, Vertumnus, he continues, the Latin-lipped altered the form of the word.  Indeed, the Romans worshipped a god of the seasons, change, and plant life, named Vertumnus, whose altar may have been inspired by the supreme Etruscan deity, Voltumna.

Arcimboldo’s rendering of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons, change, and plant life. Ca. 1590-91.

Autumn may be Etruscan in origin, but the connection between Voltumna, vertere, and autumn is probably due to folk etymology. In folk etymology, the form or sound of a word, particularly a foreign or obscure word, is changed to accord with ostensibly commonsensical, though mistaken, connections to known words. Click the link for some fun examples of folk etymology.


While the relationship between autumn and augment may be unclear, it does point us to harvest, which, in the form of haerfast, named the season between summer and winter as bar back as 902. Harvest may once have encapsulated the entire season, but, with rise of fall and autumn, it narrowed to refer to “the time of gathering of crops,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, then to the action of gathering, and, yet later, to the product of gathering.

Speaking of “that time of year,” poems about autumn and fall–and English really does have a great repertory of them–may remind us of life’s transience, urging us to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” (I know, I think that one’s a bit more vernal, but you get the idea.)

Or, as Horace put it, carpe diem. To “seize the day,” or, better yet, pluck the day while it is ripe. To pick from the tree, heavy with apples. Through the Proto-Germanic *harbitas and some classic Grimm’s law, harvest ultimately is yielded from the Proto-Indo-European *kerp, meaning “gather,” “pluck,” or “harvest.” Latin has carpere, which could also mean “to cut” or “divide.” Greek has καρπός, or the product of plucking, “fruit.” And speaking of cutting, Sanskrit has krpana for sword and krpani for “shears”

So often, we talk about taking a step back during the holiday season to see the big picture of all the sales and events, all the gatherings and obligations, all the recipes and rituals. (I could make an argument that Black Friday represents a new form of crop gathering and ritualistic celebration of bounty, but I’ll stick to etymology.)

I think etymology helps us to do this stepping back. The origin of words like fall and harvest have an immediacy, a salience, a simplicity, or a literalness that all of our myriad, modern goings-on seem to cloud up.

Leaves fall.mCrops ripen. Crops are picked. Life. Death. Nourishment. Change.

∫ r ∫

estivate + edify

Fast Mash

  • Proto-Indo-European root *aidh– (burn) gave Latin aestus (heat) and aestās (summer)
  • From aestās English forms estival (of summer) and estivate (to spend the summer)
  • *Aidh– also gave Latin aedes (building, shrine, hearth), basis of English’s edify (originally, to build up the church or soul in holiness) and edifice

Estivate and edify aren’t exactly everyday words, but, boy, do their roots show some curious connections.

While writing my last post on summer, I was struck by the absence of any Romance cognates of the season’s origin.  (Two words are cognates, it is worth repeating, when they derive from the same source.  Consider the English father and Spanish padre.)

Given that summer‘s sound and sense have changed so little over the past centuries, I expected—OK, I hoped—the root would prove more pervasive. Haven’t we’ve seen the etymological cousins of words like stream simply proliferate in Proto-Indo-European lineages? So, why not for summer? I’d think it be like linguistic chicken stock.

I know, I know. Linguists—and sensible professionals of all stripes—please roll your eyes at my pursuit of etymological holy grails. I promise to spend some more time with Saussure—or, hell, Lewis Carroll for that matter. Languages are structured, systematic, and situated. Static and stable they are not. But let an armchair etymologist dream!

But speaking of Lewis Carroll, summer may have delivered me down no rabbit holes, but its Latin equivalent, aestās, most certainly did.


Ancient Romans referred to summer as aestās. This noun gave Latin its related adjective, aestīvus, as well as the verb aestīvāre, which means to spend the summer (somewhere or doing something).

Both forms have made their way into English words. From the former English gets estival (or aestival in the UK, often with a long i and stress on the second syllable). It means pertaining to the summer. The latter kept its meaning in the sadly-less-than-useful estivate (or aestivate). In fairness to biologists, the verb it does take on more technical and practical meanings for zoological purposes. Estivation: No, not the process of transforming into Emilio Estevez, but like hibernation in hot, dry seasons.

By the way, neither word will impress your high school English teacher. Especially not when used in casual conversation in the hallway at the end of the school year. And in the same sentence.

Admired Teacher (AT): “Mr. Kelly, what are your plans for the summer?” (Teachers at all-male Jesuit high schools seem to love formal address. Or the potential for mockery therein.)

Fawning Pupil (FP): “Well, I, uh, plan to estivate by playing music, reading, working. You know, the usual estival fare.”

AT: “Oh, you’re going to music festivals? And isn’t estivating sharing a little too much?”

FP:  “No, um, estival, like summer—”

AT: “—Estival. Like summer. Mr. Kelly, I know what it means, but…”

And so I learned what fifty-cent word means, how one’s love of Latin has some very practical limits, and, most important, how to distinguish perplexity and vexation in human body language.

Real quick, though. The adverb aestīvē means scantilyas in “scantily clad.” Fantastic, right?

OK. Now, here’s where it starts to pick up heat. Aestās is related to aestus, whose meanings include agitation, heat, glowsultriness, and tide, and could also refer to billowy, boiling seas. This word, in turn, is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *aidh-, or to burn. Its Greek iteration ultimately gave English ether. It is also responsible for estuary (via Latin). And, new to me, oast, an obscure word once generally referring to kilns in Old English (āst) but now more narrowly signifying just those used for drying hops.

Oh, and there’s another word *aidh- is eventually responsible for: edify. Yep, edify.


Out of this root *aidh- Latin built aedes,  a noun that could mean apartmentbuilding, temple, shrine, and rooms (of a house). The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology, the Online Etymological Dictionary, and Shipley add hearth. Interestingly, I did not find hearth in my Latin sources, though cells (of a beehive), tomb, and rent-free home were glossed. (And if you were wondering, focus is the principal word for hearth in Latin, as well as a word for home and family. Now there’s a good rabbit hole.)  

From my cross-referencing, it seems that earliest meaning of aedes might have been hearth. Later, the sense of shrine and sanctuary came to dominate. And eventually the sense of building became common alongside its religious usage.

So, what’s the connection between burning and buildings? Did aedes come about because the use of fire for building materials? The ancient Romans did build an empire out of fired clay brick. Or simply because it named the floor or area around a fireplace? Or perhaps because of burning offerings to gods in their shrines? Indeed, for ancient Romans, an aedes housed the image of a god, and thus was considered a sanctuary or dwelling place of the god. Could the prominent Vesta, household deity and goddess of hearth and home, have had any compounding influence?

Whatever the case, aedes joined with facere (to do, make, an immensely productive root in English) to form aedifcāre (to erect a building). This generated aedificium (building, in the general sense).

And from these, via the French, English gets edify and edification. The OED dates both back to 1340, although edify technically appeared earlier (posthumous publication). Edifice comes in the 1380s.

Around 1340, edify first meant build or construct, but even then it also had a religious usage. From the OED:

To build up (the church, the soul) in faith and holiness; to benefit spiritually, to strengthen, support.

And around 1382 entered edification, which the OED notes was modeled after the Greek oikodome (οἰκοδομή), which appeared in 1 Corinthians 14. As the New International Version has it (pay attention to verses 3-5; the glosses are mine):

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue [another language] does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening [edifying], encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues [other languages], but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

What’s the benefit (edification) when people can’t understand what your saying? What’s the point of saying estivate when you can say spend the summer— and actually be understood. I’m talking to you, John.

The OED’s definitions of edification adds that such spiritual strength and stability came about through “suitable instruction and exhortation.” It’s interesting to note here the connection between early education and religion. And so through metaphorical extension, edify came to figure a moral or intellectual buildup. Today, I think we see the word most as a present participle, edifying.

Burning and heat, hearth and home, sanctuary and shrine, the church and the soul, morals and the mind. All that from the Latin word for summer. Edifying, eh?

 m ∫ r ∫

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.