If it weren’t for the Romans, we’d miss spring

Spring itself wasn’t always called “spring.” In fact, the earliest inhabitants of Britain didn’t recognize this season.

Matthias Schrader/AP
People take pictures under cherry blossoms at Olympiapark in Munich, Germany, on April 1.

We’re already a few weeks into spring, but I’m still excited. Partly because it’s finally getting warm here in Boston, and partly because there are so many interesting spring words.

Spring itself wasn’t always called “spring.” In fact the earliest inhabitants of Britain didn’t recognize this season. Early Germanic peoples divided the year into two halves: winter, when it was cold and dark, and summer, when it was not. (These are ancient words, having come to English from Proto-Germanic.) Summer was thought to run right up until the crops were harvested, which was sometimes as late as November. 

The Romans introduced the idea of spring (ver, in Latin) and autumn (autumnus) when they conquered Britain and eventually this new season before summer received an English name: lententide, or lenten.

Lenten is thought to derive from a Germanic root meaning “long,” because the days are lengthening at this time of year. The word was then applied to the liturgical season of 40 days of penitence and fasting before Easter, so between the 10th and 14th centuries, the religious observance and the season were inseparable.

In the later Middle Ages, the word Lent became an exclusively religious term, so the season needed a new name. Various candidates were tried out in the 15th century, but there was no generally accepted term. Chaucer sometimes used vere (from the Latin); other writers preferred prime tide or prime because spring was the first – the prime – season.

In the Renaissance the prime of life was thus adolescence, not the middle age we consider it to be today. Springing time was another contender – the period when buds and flowers “spring” forth. Perhaps because the sense of growth and renewal captures what people tend to love about the season, this last name won out, and since the time of Shakespeare we’ve been able to say “Spring has sprung.” 

Ver hasn’t disappeared entirely. Vernal is our go-to spring adjective – a vernal pool is one that only appears in spring; March 20 is the vernal equinox. Some plants, such as artichokes, need to be vernalized (exposed to a period of cold temperatures necessary for them to flower.) Vernant is a little-used word that means flourishing or growing. This is not to be confused with the word verdant, which means “green from lush plant life” and derives from viridis, Latin for “green.” And finally there is vernation, the arrangement of plant leaves in a bud – the coil of a fiddlehead fern, for example, is circinate vernation. The arrangement of petals in a flower bud is called aestivation, which derives from the Latin word for summer, aestas

Leaves in spring; flowers in summer, in language if not always in life.

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