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

Change of Seasons

The summer solstice is today

‘Tis the solstice…and you know what that means! Well, I hope you know what that means because I don’t.

Well, literally it means that it’s the longest day of the year so pack in all the activities you can. You’ve got all the time in the world. Visit a museum, set out on a cross-county RV road trip, run a marathon, make pie from scratch, go to an indoor surfing fitness class, head out on a hike, climb a mountain (any mountain will do), swim across the lake (any lake will do), brainstorm what to do with those extra minutes of sunlight. Now is your chance!

Helena, Montana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today is the summer solstice, aka the longest day and shortest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Forecast: burnt hotdogs, fireworks, and sunniest warm day you could even imagine.

It is the day on which:

  • The Northern Hemisphere has its longest day
  • The Northern Hemisphere has its shortest night
  • The Northern Hemisphere has the most direct intense solar radiation
  • The sun will be directly overhead at noon as viewed from the Tropic of Cancer
  • Any location north of the Arctic Circle has 24 hours of sunshine
  • The North Pole has been receiving 24 hours of sunshine every day since March 21—yes, the past three months

Today is the summer solstice, aka the official start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day of the year. In terms of astronomy, the June solstice marks the sun’s northernmost point in our sky for the year. The sun rises the farthest north on the horizon—and is highest in the sky at local noon.

For the Southern Hemisphere, it marks the longest nights and shortest days. After this solstice, the sun will be moving southward in the sky again.

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is a solstice?

The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and stitium (still or stopped). Ancient cultures knew that the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight, and the location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year. In fact, they built monuments to follow the sun’s yearly progress.

The solstice is a time to recall the reverence and understanding that early people had for the sky. Some 5,000 years ago, people placed huge stones in a circle on a broad plain in what’s now England and aligned them with the June solstice sunrise.

Creek Indian houses, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We may never comprehend the full significance of Stonehenge. But we do know that knowledge of this sort wasn’t limited to just one part of the world. Around the same time Stonehenge was being constructed in England, two great pyramids and then the Sphinx were built on Egyptian sands. If you stood at the Sphinx on the summer solstice and gazed toward the two pyramids, you’d see the sun set exactly between them.

Today, we know that the solstice is an astronomical event caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and by its orbital motion around the sun. Indeed, the Earth doesn’t orbit upright. Instead, our world is tilted on its axis by 23½ degrees. Through the year, this tilt causes Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres to trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly. In fact, our planet is closest to the sun in January during the the Northern Hemisphere’s winter.

Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park, Globe, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where should I look for signs of the June solstice in nature?

Everywhere! For all of Earth’s creatures, nothing is as fundamental as the length of the day. After all, the sun is the ultimate source of almost all light and warmth on Earth’s surface.

Living in the Northern Hemisphere, you might notice the early dawns and late sunsets and the high arc of the sun across the sky each day. You might see how high the sun appears in the sky at local noon. And, also be sure to look at your noontime shadow. Around the time of the solstice, it’s your shortest noontime shadow of the year. And in to the out-of-doors, you know the peaceful, comforting feeling that accompanies these signs and signals of the year’s longest day.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Is the June solstice the first day of summer?

No world body has designated an official day to start each new season and different schools of thought or traditions define the seasons in different ways. In meteorology, for example, summer begins on June 1. And every schoolchild knows that summer starts when the last school bell of the year rings.

Yet June 21 is perhaps the most widely recognized day upon which summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere and upon which winter begins on the southern half of Earth’s globe. There’s nothing official about it but it’s such a long-held tradition that we all recognize it to be so. It has been universal among humans to treasure this time of warmth and light.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Is the summer solstice a time to celebrate?

People around the world celebrate this sunny late June day in different ways ranging from sunrise gatherings to bonfire-lit revelry and sauna relaxation. Keep reading to learn about some of the most interesting summer solstice traditions around the globe. You just may get a few ideas for how to celebrate on the big day. Before you make any decisions, though, check out what the summer solstice means for your zodiac to make sure those plans will align with the universe’s larger plan for you.

Perhaps one of the most coveted seats in the world for the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice traditions is on the grounds of the Neolithic structures at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Ingeniously designed to showcase the ascending light of the solstice, the sunrise on this occasion aligns perfectly with a circle carved in stone at the site. Theories of its origin vary but both mystical seekers and history buffs convene here on the solstice to witness an architectural wonder built, some say, to worship deities of the Earth and the sun. Stonehenge is one of the ancient mysteries researchers still can’t explain.

Another wonder of ancient architecture, the pyramids of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula are a wonderful place to celebrate the longest day of the year. The precise construction and engineering of the pyramids create a visual display twice a year in which the central pyramid of El Castillo is bathed in pure sunlight on one side and full shadow on the other. Thousands of spectators come from near and far to celebrate the summer solstice in view of this ethereal spectacle in which the pyramid appears to be cut in two.

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The indigenous people of New Mexico paid close attention to the sun. In addition to the Pueblo-built sandstone buildings of Chaco Canyon, the state is also home to the Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec. Ancestral Pueblo people had a strong relationship with the cosmos. They built the back (north) wall of the monument to perfectly align with the rising and setting sun as it touches the horizon during both the summer and winter solstices. Despite its name, the Aztec Ruins National Monument was not built by the Aztec people (that was just an incorrect guess from early settlers) but instead by the Ancestral Pueblans. It took approximately 200 years to build these structures which date from around the 12th century.

Despite holidays at all times of the year, the summer solstice is when Swedes really celebrate. Is it so surprising that inhabitants of one of the world’s most northerly countries want to celebrate a day full of sunshine and warmth? The Midsummer (or Midsommar) Festival takes place across the country. The day is brimming with ancient agrarian symbolism from walking barefoot in the morning dew for good health to ringing floral crowns around women’s hair to celebrate beauty and fertility. If you want to join in the fun of this summer solstice tradition, stock up on pickled herring for a snack and strawberries topped with whipped cream for dessert.

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why doesn’t the longest day have the hottest weather?

People often ask, if the June solstice brings the longest day, why do we experience the hottest weather in late July and August?

This effect is called the lag of the seasons. It’s the same reason it’s hotter in mid-afternoon than at noontime. Earth just takes a while to warm up after a long winter. Even in June, ice and snow still blanket the ground in some places. The sun has to melt the ice and warm the oceans and then we feel the most sweltering summer heat.

Ice and snow have been melting since spring began. Meltwater and rainwater have been percolating down through snow on tops of glaciers. But the runoff from glaciers isn’t as great now as it’ll be in another month even though sunlight is striking the Northern Hemisphere most directly around now.

So wait another month for the hottest weather. It’ll come when the days are already beginning to shorten again as Earth continues to move in orbit around the sun bringing us closer to another winter. And so the cycle continues.

Soap Lake, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line: Time to celebrate! Ah, the summer solstice. It’s the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, and the official kickoff for warm-weather festivities.

Worth Pondering…

This is the solstice, the still point of the sun, its cusp and midnight, the year’s threshold and unlocking, where the past lets go of and becomes the future; the place of caught breath.

—Margaret Atwood