After a long winter, the arrival of spring always brings an atmosphere of renewal and fresh starts. Flowers start blooming, trees begin to sprout new leaves, and baseball fans welcome the return of the game. The word “spring” itself started as part of a longer phrase, “spring of the year,” to signify the launch of a new season. It was shortened to just “spring” by the mid 1500s. As we appreciate all of the pleasures that come with warmer weather, we can celebrate the season by learning the etymology of these spring words and phrases.
From the Latin vernalis, meaning “of spring,” “vernal” is an adjective that most commonly appears along with “equinox.” The equinox (which occurs twice a year) is the day when the sun crosses the celestial equator, and day and night are approximately equal. For those in the Northern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox happens around March 20, and signifies the start of spring, while the autumnal equinox falls around September 22. (The days are swapped in the Southern Hemisphere.) Savvy wordsmiths might recognize that “vernal” helps form other spring-related words, such as “primavera,” which means “first spring.”
For Christians, Lent is the 40-day period preceding Easter Sunday. It's a religious observance that typically includes fasting and penitence. In Old English, the word “lencten” refers to the spring season itself and the longer days the season brings. The Lent season moves around on the modern calendar, but it begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter.
Related to Lent, but practiced very differently, Mardi Gras translates directly from French as “Fat Tuesday.” During Lent, Christians may choose to fast or give up certain habits, and Mardi Gras is a celebration of all the things one might include in a fast. It falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, but in the communities that observe it, such as New Orleans, it’s a longer season full of parades and parties. “Carnival” is the week before Lent, celebrated in Roman Catholic cultures with processions, music, dancing, and masquerade.
When warmer weather comes, many folks are eager to turn off the heat and throw open the windows to let in the fresh air. These gusts of air can help with “spring cleaning,” a phrase first noted in publications during the mid-1800s. It makes sense that housekeepers would want to scrub the house after a winter of relying on sooty kerosene lamps and coal stoves, but this practice likely has older, religious roots. In Jewish tradition, a deep cleaning is tied to getting rid of all the leavened bread in the home before Passover (which falls in March or April). In Persian culture, the new year, or Nowruz, festival occurs at the start of the vernal equinox. Part of the celebration includes spring cleaning for a fresh start.
No Spring Chicken
This idiom is one of many (such as “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”) that has a literal meaning based in agriculture and farming. Historically, this phrase referred to the hatching season for chickens. Birds born in the spring were likely to sell better than those that were from the previous year. When used in a sentence euphemistically, the phrase suggests that something (or someone) can’t compete against their younger counterparts.
When the sun shines through the window and the thermometer climbs into the 60s and 70s, it can be difficult to stay focused on doing anything else other than heading outdoors. This antsy feeling, otherwise known as “spring fever,” evokes similar feelings to “cabin fever,” which can strike at any time of year.
Featured image credit: Boogich/ iStock