Spring into the History of the Names of the Four Seasons

Why do we call the seasons spring, summer, fall, and winter?

In 2024, the first day of spring lands on March 19. It marks the vernal equinox—the astronomical beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere as it tilts closer to the sun. With warmer temperatures and more daylight, the conditions are perfect for April showers and May flowers. The origin of the word spring is deeply rooted in this idea of new growth bursting from the earth.

As is the case for all four seasons, the history of springtime began thousands of years ago as ancient cultures sought to name different periods of the year based on weather patterns. The word season itself came into English as the Old French word saison derived from the Latin sationem meaning “time of sewing” relating to the natural connection between farming and the seasons. Let’s take a closer look at the etymology of the names of the seasons, beginning with spring.

Spring in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring

The season after winter and before summer is when vegetation appears in the Northern Hemisphere from March to May and in the Southern Hemisphere from September to November.

Astronomy: The period from the vernal equinox to the summer solstice.

The earliest use of spring dates back at least 1,000 years to the Old English verb springan which had a few meanings including “to leap, burst forth, fly up, or to spread, grow”. Other Proto-Germanic languages adopted similar words such as the Old Norse springa and the Old High German springan both of which came from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root sprengh meaning “to move or hasten.”

Spring’s journey to becoming the name of the vernal season began in the 14th century in Middle English with the phrase “springing time” referring to a period of the year when plants began to sprout. Spring wasn’t used exclusively for the season, though. The noun also described the moonrise (spring of mone) and the sunrise (spring of dai).

By the 1520s, the phrases “spring of the leaf” and “spring of the year” were common ways to describe the season of lencten, the Old English word relating to Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter in the Christian calendar. By the mid-16th century, the name for the time period called “spring of the year” was shortened to “spring.” It had officially become the most common word for the season of budding flowers and new beginnings.

Summer in Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer

The season between spring and before fall comprises the warmest season of the year in the Northern Hemisphere from June to August and in the Southern Hemisphere from December to February.

Astronomy: The period from the summer solstice to the autumnal equinox.

Summer has been in English for over a millennium though it’s spelled a little differently now. The word somor described “the hot season of the year” in Old English. Other Proto-Germanic languages had similar words for this season such as sumar used in Old Saxon, Old Norse, and Old High German. These words came from the PIE root sm- which led to the first words for the summer season in other ancient languages (even older than Old English’s somor) including the Armenian amarn, Old Irish sam, and Old Welsh ham.

The word somor eventually transformed into summer (a noun for the season) sometime before the 12th century. Middle English words were often spelled differently than their Old English counterparts because of foreign language influences. Summer also has been used as an adjective (as in “summer vacation”) since the beginning of the 14th century and as a verb (as in, “They summered at the country house”) since the 15th century.

Fall in North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Autumn/Fall

The season after summer and before winter is the third season of the year when crops and fruits are gathered and leaves fall in the Northern Hemisphere from September to November and in the Southern Hemisphere from March to May.

Astronomy: The period from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice.

Autumn and fall are used interchangeably to describe the season between summer and winter though fall tends to be more popular in American English and autumn is favored in British English. Marked by colorful foliage, harvest festivals, and pumpkin-spice-flavored everything, this season was first called autumnus a few millennia ago but the origins of this Latin word are not very clear.

Fall in Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What can be traced is the adoption of autumnus into other languages such as the Old French autumpne in the 13th century. Autumpne was pulled into Middle English in the late 15th century and the spelling changed to autumn in the 16th century. Before this adoption of autumn, the season was called harvest in English from the Old English hærfest from Proto-Germanic harbitas (source also of Old Saxon hervist).

Fall has been used interchangeably with autumn since the mid-17th century in British English (though it’s not that popular across the pond anymore). It came from a shortening of the mid-16th-century phrase “fall of the leaf” which used the Old English noun/verb fall to describe “a drop from a height” from the Proto-Germanic word fallanan.

“To put it more pretentiously, there was always something transient, unstable, mysterious, emotionally undefined about autumn and fall, unlike the other seasons which are so well defined,” said Tony Thorne, a lexicographer at King’s College London. “Maybe that’s why people could not easily decide on one permanent name throughout our history.”

Winter in British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter

The fourth and coldest season of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is from December to February and in the Southern Hemisphere from June to August.

Astronomy: The period from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox.

The Old English word winter came from the Proto-Germanic word for the season, wintruz. Other languages also borrowed their words from this source including the Danish and Swedish words of the same spelling, vinter. Wintruz likely comes from the PIE wend, nasalized of the root wed- meaning “the wet season,” a fitting name for a season characterized by dreary rain showers or blustering snow.

This is also the root that gave us the Old English word for ​​wæter. Both the noun and the adjective “winter” (as in “winter vegetables”) have been around since at least the 12th century while the verb (as in, “They wintered at the beach”) appeared in the 14th century.

As an adjective in Old English, the Anglo-Saxons counted years in “winters” as in Old English ænetre “one-year-old” and wintercearig which might mean either “winter-sad” or “sad with years.” Old Norse Vetrardag, first day of winter, was the Saturday that fell between October 10 and 16.

Worth Pondering…

Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.

―Yoko Ono

Preparing for Sweater Weather

The fall equinox arrives on Saturday, September 23, 2023

Autumn has caught us in our summer wear.
—Philip Larkin, British poet (1922–86)

It’s officially the last day of summer which means that pumpkin spice and sweater weather are basically upon us. Rather than bemoan the end of one season, I’m looking forward to everything autumn brings with it—including crisp morning air and apple cider. Consider today’s post your fall kickoff complete with a leaf-peeping guide and some great road trips for the season.

Saying farewell to the long, warm days of summer can be bittersweet but the sheer majesty of the changing fall foliage makes the transition a little bit easier. As autumn’s cooler temperatures and shorter days set the trees ablaze with color, now is an ideal time to plan a leaf-peeping road trip, hike, or other excursion to take in the views.

It is the summer’s great last heat,
It is the fall’s first chill: They meet.
—Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fall season officially begins on Saturday, September 23. This date marks the autumn equinox or the date between the summer and winter solstices when day and night are nearly equal lengths. (We also know it as the first day of the year when you can order a pumpkin spice latte with no shame.)

During an equinox, the Sun crosses what we call the celestial equator—an imaginary extension of Earth’s equator line into space. The equinox occurs precisely when the Sun’s center passes through this line.

After the autumnal equinox, days become shorter than nights as the Sun continues to rise later and nightfall arrives earlier. This ends with the winter solstice after which days start to grow longer once again. 

The word equinox comes from Latin aequus, meaning “equal” and nox, the Latin word for “night.” On the equinox, day and night are roughly equal in length.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But why do leaves change color in the fall?

Autumnal leaves in vibrant hues are a beautiful part of the season but those leaves are also a vital part of keeping trees alive. The trees with leaves that change color in fall are deciduous. (Evergreen trees with needles which stay green to continue the photosynthesis process through the winter are coniferous.) Deciduous trees usually have large, broad leaves.

Most of the year, these leaves are green because of the chlorophyll they use to absorb energy from sunlight during photosynthesis. The leaves convert the energy into sugars to feed the tree.

As the season changes, temperatures drop and days get shorter. Trees receive less direct sunlight and the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down.

The lack of chlorophyll reveals yellow and orange pigments that were already in the leaves but masked during the warmer months. Darker red leaves are the result of a chemical change: Sugars that can get trapped in the leaves produce new pigments (called anthocyanins) that weren’t part of the leaf in the growing season. Some trees like oaks and dogwoods are likely to produce red leaves.

Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When do fall leaves change color

Leaves can change their color from as early as mid-September through early November. Typically, the second and third weeks of October are the peak times but it shifts depending on your location and your local weather conditions.

Foliage starts to change in the northern-tier states out West and in the Midwest by late September. By October 2, the leaves in some areas will be past their prime. 

Much of New England as well as the Pacific Northwest will be at or near peak fall color by October 9. 

A little further south in the Blue Ridge Mountains, mid-October is your best bet.

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina/Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See below for times of the year of peak foliage around the country:

  • Oregon: Best viewed while driving along scenic highways from mid-September through mid-October; however, color conditions vary daily based on humidity and fog density. 
  • North Carolina: North Carolina’s leaf patterns move east across the state. The first leaves in the western part of the state begin to peak the week of October 9. By October 23, the entire state should peak and the show will be pretty much over by November 1.
  • Vermont: Optimal viewing from September 18 through October 2 although the leaves will begin to change in early September.
  • New Hampshire: Leaves in New Hampshire will be at their best the last week of September. By October 16 most of the state will have changed.
  • Washington: Washington State leaves normally hit their peak the week of October 9 and past their peak by October 23.
Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top destinations for viewing fall leaves

Here is a list of my picks for the most idyllic spots in the U.S. for viewing fall leaves. Some are off the beaten path, some are on more popular, scenic routes for you to enjoy whether on foot or by vehicle. I’ve also included the dates for peak foliage viewing for each location.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Peak Viewing: October 9-28

Virginia’s Skyline Drive is a National Scenic Byway that runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The speed limit is 35 mph with 75 overlooks to pull over and enjoy the sights of the Shenandoah Valley below. Often called one of America’s favorite mountain drives, Skyline Drive is “good for the soul.” 

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Peak viewing: Mid September to mid October

Aside from aspens, cottonwoods, and other deciduous trees making the slow turn to brilliance, the abundant sandstone rocks change colors here, too. Shorter days and angled fall light combine to give Moab’s signature sandstone deeper, more varied colors than usual. Several different leaf-peeping routes include the La Sal Mountain Loop Road Scenic Backway, the Gemini Bridges Trail, the Poison Spider Mesa Trail, and the Moab Rim Trail. Jeeps are required on all routes except the La Sal

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Peak viewing: Mid to late October, depending on elevation.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any terrain more perfectly orchestrated for fall color viewing than the Great Smoky Mountains. Lots of sumac adds to the brilliant reds but the Park boasts an amazing diversity of trees and terrain that add to the color spectrum—some 100 species of native trees live in the Smokies. To enjoy them, drive the Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway. 

Mount Washington Cog Railway, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kancamagus Scenic Highway, Lincoln, New Hampshire

Peak viewing: September 25-October 7

The Kancamagus Scenic Highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire known by the locals as The Kanc provides some of the most spectacular fall foliage viewing in New England. The Kanc’s 35-mile scenic pass that connects Lincoln to Conway (Route 112) has some tricky hairpin turns and no gas stations so be prepared. It does have plenty of places to pull over and enjoy the grandeur of the vistas. 

Julian apples © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Julian, California

Peak viewing: Early to mid-November.

In Julian, autumn is the grandstand season both for apple-pie eating and leaf-peeping. Sample the town’s homemade apple confections then watch black oaks do their color-changing trick at Lake Cuyamaca in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. A scenic 45-minute drive leads to Palomar Mountain State Park where you can put some miles on your feet while you admire bracken ferns and leafy oaks on the Thunder Ridge and Chimney Flat Loop. Or hike the Five Oaks Trail at Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, home to some of the oldest and largest black oaks in San Diego County. 

Worth Pondering…

It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!

—A. A. Milne