Floridians are bracing for Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and which has already left extensive destruction in its Caribbean wake—and the origin of the storm’s moniker is all too cruelly appropriate for its wrath and path.
Another familiar ermen-based is Emma. Emma was brought to the English-speaking world by Emma of Normandy (985–1052), who gave birth to Edward the Confessor in her marriage to Æthelred the Unready.
Less immediately familiar is Emmerich, a Germanic name often explained as literally meaning “universal power,” joining to ermen the root rich, “ruler.” This root, via various Germanic and Italic paths, is related to a host of English words, including right, realm, regal, and yes, the very words rich and ruler.
In Medieval Italian, the name Emmerich apparently became Amerigo, famously borne by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). Vespucci demonstrated that the New World—in that old European orientation—was not Asia but its own landmass. A Latinized version of his name gives us America, remembered in both the northern and southern continents and, of course, the U. S. of A.
With a storm like Irma, its seems the whole world is reaching out—whether with thoughts or aid—to everyone affected in the Americas by her winds and waters.
Are you feeling a little hazy after 4/20? Maybe from some purple haze? No, no, I’m sure you were just listening to the Jimi Hendrix song. Well, you’re not alone, as the etymology of hazy is itself quite hazy.
What do El Niño and Christmas have in common? It’s not just the unseasonable weather much of the US is experiencing this holiday, though my drought-stricken state of California is getting a much needed White Christmas in the Sierras. No, this weather pattern and Christian holiday also share a crib, etymologically speaking.
Spanish speakers will readily recognize el niño as “the child” or “the boy.” In the case of the proper noun El Niño, it’s a very special little boy, at least to Christians: El Niño de Navidad, the Christ Child.
But to many people who don’t speak Spanish, El Niño means some weird weather. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explains it: “The term El Niño refers to the large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific.”
But what does this have to do with baby Jesus? South Americans – and many sources specify Peruvian fishermen as early as the 1600s – noted the warm waters of the weather phenomenon occurring during December. Hence, the association between the weather event and Christmas.
I think it’s neat – if, of course, arbitrary, given the accidents of language and society – that two so very complex systems affecting so many millions of people across the globe – one meteorological and climatological, the other cultural and religious – share this little bit of baby talk: niño.
Well, it’s been another great year of word origins. Thanks, everyone, for your interest and support. I’m looking forward to another year ahead. It’s a presidential election year in the US, so I’m sure it’ll be a good one.
The Mashed Radish will be back in 2016. Happy Holidays!
This past week, a few words “blew up” in New England: blizzard, concerning the storm that pounded some parts of the region while only glancing at others, and deflate, due to the allegedly deflated footballs used by the Patriots in their win over the Colts en route to the Super Bowl. Let’s see what their etymologies have to say.
Weather forecasts and etymology have much in common: uncertainty. Perhaps no better word illustrates this commonality than blizzard. Many sources play it safe and note the word’s origin as unknown or obscure. Others have taken more risks, like Eric Partridge, who’ve connected the word to blaze, thinned to blizz, a kind of rainstorm, with “the hiss of rain being likened to that of a blazing fire.” While blaze seems dubious, Eric Partridge is right to highlight the importance of sound to this word, as we will see.
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest record of the word is in 1829, where it referred to a “violent blow,” much like a punch. Davy Crockett gets a citation in 1834; I recommend you avoid toasting him at dinner. Especially in the American West, the word was also used of gunshots and arguments. The year 1859 marks evidence for blizzard‘s application to snowstorms, while the legendary winter in 1880-1881 in the American Upper Midwest appears to have generalized the word’s usage.
Sonically, blizzard is a very effective word. The initial, phonesthemic bl– evokes the force of blast, blow or bluster, while its z‘s suggest speed. Anatoly Liberman is never one to underestimate such sound symbolism, so he puts up for such an imitative effect of blizz in British rural speech before landing in America. Blizz was then coupled with the productive suffix –ard, as we see in words like drunkard and in my post on bastard.
A blizzard may evoke the force of a blow, but deflation, another word much on the New England mind, is etymologically related to it. There’s record of inflation as far back as 1340, but its opposite doesn’t hit the scene until 1891. The word appears not in reference to footballs, but to a Mr. Percival Spencer’s thrilling hot-air ballon at the Naval Exhibition in London.
Hot air indeed: Both inflation and deflation have gas. Inflation originally referred to as much, naming the condition of being distended with air. At root is the Latin flāre (participial form, flātus), “to blow.” This root really ballooned in the English language. You don’t want to conflate the soufflé with flatulence. A blast of flavor can cure the blasé. While these sentences don’t really hold together well meaning-wise, the italicized word’s connection to the Proto-Indo-European root *bhle– does. For, via flāre, they are ultimately reconstructed from *bhle,“to blow.”
Now,this Deflategate business may also be a bunch of hot air, but football teams might heed the etymological advice of *bhle-. This root may be a variant of *bhel-, which swelled Indo-European languages with its cognates, including some words important to the sport, making deflated balls are one path to the Super Bowl.
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.
As a name for the third season of the year, fallis 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 toProto-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 false, fail,fault, fallacy, 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 autumn–autumpne–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 autumnus, sometimes 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.
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.
Typhoon reaches English–translated from the Italian, itself from the Portuguese tufão–in the late 1580s, and its various spellings point to various possible sources
Typhoon may be from the Arabic tufan (“violent storm of wind and rain”), related to tafa (“to turn around”)
It may also be from the Greek typhon (“whirlwind” and name of a monstrous, giant god), related to typhein (“smoke,” as in vapor)
Chinese might have influence, too, with ta feng (Mandarindàfēng or大風), meaning “big wind”
It’s hard to comprehend the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan has visited upon the Philippines this November. But for far too many, there is no comprehension. There’s only experience–brutal experience.
At the Mashed Radish, I use etymology as a lens through which to view human experience, or at least the ways words might structure that experience. This effort seems so small when it comes to the more extreme experiences that test–nay, defy– comprehension. My musings offer utterly no material aid, and I’m not going to pretend the little insights I kick up do much for solidarity.
But perhaps there is some tiny truth in the origin of typhoon that can help us better attend to Haiyan’s aftermath.
Of all the words I have traced so far, I don’t think any has shown as diverse a possible lineage as typhoon. Meteorologically, typhoons, hurricanes, and cyclones are all strong tropical cyclones, but they occur in different geographic regions. A typhoon strikes the northwest Pacific ocean west of the dateline. And it has carried this distinction–well, its distinction as a violent, massive storm in the East, especially in India or in the China Sea–for some time in the English language.
Since 1588, to be precise, when a Thomas Hickock, an English merchant traveling the Mediterranean Sea, translated the Viaggio (shortened title), written in 1587 by the Venetian merchant Cesare de Fedrici after 18 years of travel in the East. As the OED cites Hickcock:
I went a boord of the Shippe of Bengala, at which time it was the yeere of Touffon…This Touffon or cruell storme endured three dayes and three nightes.
Likely by way of the Portuguese tufão, this touffon may derive from tufan, whichin Urdu (and Arabic, Persian, and Hindi), refers to a “violent storm of wind and rain,” as the OED defines it. The Online Etymology Dictionary adds that al-tufan “occurs several times in the Koran for a ‘flood or a storm’ and also for Noah’s flood.” At root may be the Arabic tafa,meaning “to turn around.”
However, some have traced tufan back to the Greek typhon, meaning “whirlwind” and personified as a god of the same name. Weekely describes Typhon as a “giant, father of the winds, buried under Mount Etna.” Apparently, this winged, coiling Typhon also had a hundred heads (sometimes depicted as bull, lion, leopard, or snake heads), had two vipers for legs, had fifty serpent heads for each hand, and breathed fire–not to mention the fact that he fathered Cerberus, Sphinx, Hydra, and Chimera, among other monsters. The OED also notes that this name is shared by an ancient, evil Egyptian deity.
Typhon likely comes from the Greek verb typhein, or “smoke.” Typhus and typhoid are indeed related: Greek has typhos(blind, stupor caused by fever). As might be related the two cognates thyme and fume, some have suggested.
The English language presents other forms of the word–tuffoon and tay-fun, among other spellings–that point to a Chinese influence. Chinese has ta feng, with ta meaning “big” and feng “wind.” In today’s traditional Mandarin, we would see dàfēng, or 大風. This is the same feng in “feng shui.” But there is little harmony in this feng.
As I recall from my too brief studies of basic Chinese in college, the character dà pictographically resembles a man with outstretched arms. A fathom, if you will. But within the character for “wind,” it turns out, is the character for “insect.” Scholars posit some explanations for this: a likeness between the wind and bugs, sharing speed and changing directionality; or an ancient belief that the wind carries illness, either because it carries bugs or inflicts illness like bugs can.
Judge not this ancient etiology. We call germs “bugs.” We refer to getting sick as “catching a bug.” And what about the cold–rooted in the belief that being exposed to the cold (and all its chilly winds) can cause sickness? Oh, and there’s that whole matter of airborne communicability, you know, like tuberculosis.
Who has the final word: Arabic, Greek, Chinese? While the Greek has no apparent connection to the Chinese, it seems typhon has influenced the spelling of English typhoon. There could be a case for the Chinese making its way west. And it seems reasonable to consider an interaction between the Greek and the Arabic. But, ultimately, we aren’t certain.
Our words so often fall short. We grope for ways to express–to give name to–the most extreme of our experiences. But within our words are stories of our attempts to explain these experiences. The Greek giant Typhon–making sense of natural calamities, of why bad things happen and why the world is as it is, in terms of mythic dramas involving divine actors. Or infectious Chinese winds–folklore of evil sprits yet closer to our modern scientific understanding than we ever imagined.
And yet at the same time events such as Typhoon Haiyan speak for themselves. Perhaps as typhoonspoke for itself as it travelled from Urdu and Hindi and Arabic and Greek to the Portuguese and the English. Or in Chinese, where its story is as direct as it can get: “big wind.”
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 itmeans, 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 aestīvēmeans scantily, as 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, glow, sultriness, 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 apartment, building, 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-freehome 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?
Summer is from Old English, sumor, meaning the same; first attested ca. 825
Probably ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *sem
Abundant cognates, especially Germanic, and including the telling Sanskrit sama (half-year, year, season)
This year, the summer solstice fell on June 21st at 1:04AM ET. The longest day of the year inaugurates the second and warmest season, for those dwelling in temperate climes. It also marks midsummer, religious and cultural celebrations of agriculture, fertility, and, in the Christian appropriation of so-called pagan traditions, the nativity of John the Baptist. And no, bonfires are not just for the beach; they feature prominently as a protective force in these festivities, particularly in Scandinavia today.
The mellifluous solstice, while we’re on it,is from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (cause to stand). This verb (related to stāre, stand) also gives English assist, insist, and subsist, among others.
While we consider this event a whole day, it’s technically an instant. For me, this fact evokes Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Take a moment to enjoy this delightful, short, animated explanation from the Open University:
So, if we assign a magnitude to the instant of the solstice, then can’t we continue subdividing that instant into ever smaller parts, rendering it infinitesimal and therefore illusory, not a concrete instant at all? And wouldn’t that make all our instants—from our first breath and first step to our first words and first heartbreak and first job to or first car, child, house, and, and, and—all illusions?
Well, concerning time, there are these things called special and general relativity. And there is this thing known as spacetime, which wows me each time I learn it anew (and trust me, each time, I have to learn it anew) like a game of peakaboo. Trying to grasp at this theoretical smoke misses the point, though, phenomenologically speaking. I think Eistein would even agree with that.
Oh, by the way, you can read Einstein’s 1920 publication of Relativity: Special and General Theory in translation online. He opens with “a little consideration” of truth, geometrically speaking. He is at times quite poetic (Ch. 1, para. 1).
Anyways, the big takeaway is that time is all about frame of reference. But I’ll get back to that.
Wait. What we’re we talking about? Oh yeah. Summer.
So this is what happens when I can’t think of a good introduction. It’s like being assigned summer reading on summer break. (Which assignments inevitably elicit one of my favorite smart-aleck utterances from high schoolers: “Then why’s it called summer vacation?” Citing the “summer learning gap” is never cogent, in case you were wondering.)
It’s OK, though, because spacetime gives us permission to talk about summertime. And this whole frame of reference is actually pretty apropos.
Summer has had lots of different spellings overtime and seemingly just as many Germanic iterations. Dutch has zomer, German has Sommer. Old English had sumor (ODE first attests sumur ca. 825; gossamer is related, joining gos, goose, and sumer, summer). They all converge (excluding Gothic, which evidences no related form) in a Proto-Germanic root, *sumur-, related to the Proto-Indo-European *sem-. Its cognates include a curious, and ancient, array:
Sanskrit, sama (half-year, year, season)
Old Irish sam, samrad (summer)
Old Welsh ham, Welsh haf (summer)
Avestan hama (in summer)
Armenian amarn (summer)
A rose is a rose and summer is…summer. None of this seems terribly profound, or perhaps even interesting, until we consider the Sanskrit meanings of half-year, year, or season. Indeed, Weekley (1967) notes that summer (and winter) were the original divisions of the year, and that “a young lady’s years are [figuratively] reckoned by summers, an old man’s by winters” (p. 1446).
Seasons measure time. They are units of time. Through patterns of temperature and daylight, of flora and fauna, they mark agricultural calendars, life cycles, and the yet grander astronomical schemata whose determination of human affairs so many ancient cultures mapped out. Wet seasons. Dry seasons. Or six seasons, in the Hindu calendar. As such, they have taken on incredibly material and immediate significance for humans. Physical significance, organismic significance, as midsummer, for example, anticipates the harvest. What is to be done. What is to be expected. What is possible. And all this, in turn, gets encoded into social, cultural, and religious significance. Bonfires, maypoles, Stonehenges, nativities. Beliefs, myths, systems, narratives.
Now, it’s easy to forget this connectedness between our experience of time and the seasons, especially in the developed world where we are so alienated from our food sources, if not from capital-n Nature altogether. (Remember “chicken“?) It’s also easy to think of summer just in terms of certain kinds of weather, clothing, holidays, or activities. But, for as much as we may no longer be conscious of how the seasons organize our experience of time, I still think it endures.
As its cognates show, summer has meant summer for a very long time. And I like to think of this deep, temporal sense of summer as sedimented in its etymology. For all our time in front of screens or in the frozen food aisle, and even for as much as language changes, perhaps we are more connected than we give ourselves credit for.
Today, we might primarily experience time through work weeks, through a cycle of weekends punctuated by holidays and vacations. Or perhaps through days and hours—or maybe in ever smaller increments, given the instantaneity of the digital age, or yet some other form altogether (like the emails from J. Crew, Macy’s, Amazon, et alia that pepper my inbox every morning. Like clockwork, y’know? They know what they’re doing.).
But as we watch the hands spin on wristwatches, the numbers turn on our cellphones or computer monitors, the boxes march and pages flip on calendars, we get hungry, we cold or hot, we get sleepy. We get it on. Food, light, climate, and reproduction—are these not guiding the primordial and persistent measures of the human experience in a physical world? Are these not the deep structures still undergirding our temporal frame of reference, invisible or antiquated as they may seem?
They are, according to the ecological psychology of James J. Gibson. In the introduction to his brilliant The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1986), he describes the proper frame of reference for human perception as at the level of life as we live it as animal organisms evolved in terrestrial environments:
We are concerned here things at the ecological level, with the habitat of men, because we all behave with respect to things we can look at and feel, or smell and taste, and events we can listen to (p. 9).
And concerning the temporal, he poetically puts forth:
Human observers cannot perceive the erosion of a mountain, but they can detect the fall of a rock. They can notice the displacement of a chair in a room but not the shift of an electron in an atom…The rate of change, the transition, is within the limits of perceptibility…The flow of abstract empty time, however useful this concept may be to the physicist, has no reality for an animal. We perceive not time but processes, changes, sequences…(p. 12).
Beautiful. Like the word solstice. Or summer-idle, summer-soothed, or summer-still.
Huh. Standing still, soothed and idle. Maybe summer isn’t trying to tell me about time or change. Maybe it’s trying to tell me something about when the living is easy.