- 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.
m ∫ r ∫