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

When Does Spring Start? Here Is Why Each Season Begins Twice.

Some measure seasonal shifts by Earth’s position relative to the sun while others use annual temperature cycles. Here’s the difference between astronomical and meteorological seasons.

The first day of spring is Monday, March 20, 2023, at 5:24 p.m. EDT. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this was marked by the arrival of the Vernal Equinox (otherwise known as the First Point of Aries). Vernal translates to new and fresh and equinox derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night).

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every year, weather forecasters welcome the arrival of spring on the first day of March—while others contend that the spring really begins a few weeks later with the equinox which falls on or around March 21. So who is right about when the seasons begin and end?

It depends on why you’re asking. Seasons are defined in two ways: astronomical seasons which are based on Earth’s position as it rotates around the sun and meteorological seasons which are based on annual temperature cycles. Both divide the year into spring, summer, fall, and winter—yet with slightly different start and end dates for each. Here’s what they mean and how to tell them apart.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Astronomical seasons

People have used observable periodic natural phenomena to mark time for thousands of years. The natural rotation of Earth around the sun forms the basis for the astronomical calendar in which we define seasons with two solstices and two equinoxes. Earth’s tilt and the sun’s alignment over the equator determine both the solstices and equinoxes.

Ancient Rome was the first to officially mark those seasons with the introduction of the Julian calendar. Back then, the seasons began on different days than the modern era because of discrepancies with the Gregorian calendar used primarily today. Now, the start of each astronomical season is marked by either an equinox or a solstice.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The equinoxes mark the times when the sun passes directly above the equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice falls on or around June 21, the winter solstice on or around December 22, the vernal or spring equinox on or around March 21, and the autumnal equinox on or around September 22. These seasons are reversed but begin on the same dates in the Southern Hemisphere.

Solstices mark the brightest and darkest days of the year. They are also driven by Earth’s tilt and mark the beginning of astronomical summer and winter. When the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, it is brighter and feels like summer while at the same time the Southern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, plunging it into a dark winter.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because Earth actually travels around the sun in 365.24 days, an extra day is needed every fourth year creating what we know as Leap Year. This also causes the exact date of the solstices and equinoxes to vary. Additionally, the elliptical shape of Earth’s orbit around the sun causes the lengths of the astronomical seasons to vary between 89 and 93 days. These variations in season length and season start would make it very difficult to consistently compare climatological statistics for a particular season from one year to the next. Thus, the meteorological seasons were born.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meteorological seasons

Since at least the 18th century, scientists have sought better methods of predicting growing seasons and other weather phenomena. Over time, that gave rise to the concept of meteorological seasons which are more closely aligned with both annual temperatures and the civil calendar.

Meteorological seasons are far simpler than astronomical seasons. They divide the calendar year into four seasons that each last exactly three months and are based on the annual temperature cycle. Winter takes place during the coldest three months of the year, summer in the hottest three months, and spring and fall mark the remaining transition months.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the Northern Hemisphere that means the start date for each season is March 1 (spring), June 1 (summer), September 1 (fall), and December 1 (winter). In the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed; spring begins in September, summer in December, fall in March, and winter in June.

Meteorological observing and forecasting led to the creation of these seasons and they are more closely tied to our monthly civil calendar than the astronomical seasons are. The length of the meteorological seasons is also more consistent ranging from 90 days for winter of a non-leap year to 92 days for spring and summer. By following the civil calendar and having less variation in season length and season start, it becomes much easier to calculate seasonal statistics from the monthly statistics, both of which are very useful for agriculture, commerce, and a variety of other purposes.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The consistency of meteorological seasons allows meteorologists to make the complex statistical calculations necessary to make predictions and compare seasons to one another. “Dealing with whole-month chunks of data rather than fractions of months was more economical and made more sense,” climatologist Derek Arndt told the Washington Post in 2014. “We organize our lives more around months than astronomical seasons, so our information follows suit.”

So when is the first day of spring? It isn’t March 1 or the spring equinox—it’s both.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But, if you live in Canada or the northern states you may argue, as I do, that we need a third means of determining the first day of spring. I suggest that spring really begins with the appearance of the first tiny leaves on the trees or the first crocus plants peeping through the snow? The First Leaf and First Bloom Indices are synthetic measures of these early season events in plants, based on recent temperature conditions. These models allow us to track the progression of spring onset across the country. 

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a look outside. If the birds are chirping, tree leaves are budding, the grass is turning green again—then it is spring!

>> DIG DEEPER

Worth Pondering…

She turned to the sunlight

And shook her yellow head,

And whispered to her neighbor: Winter is dead.

—A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young