Yesterday was sunny and relatively mild–okay, 35° Fahrenheit, which is tolerable, given the cold we’ve seen all winter. Today we have snow, sleet and ice. It’s the kind of precipitation that could be a spring rain, except the temperature is too cold. It has been like this for weeks now, this painful birthing of spring, going on in a kind of cycle within a cycle. A few days of warmth and sunshine, birds singing, light breeze in the trees, and then BAM!–back to winter. Like an engine that hasn’t been used for too long and needs to clear the gunk out before it can get going, coughing, sputtering, revving up and dying again. One tires of writing about it, and surely people tire of reading about it. So one thinks of something different to write about, doesn’t one?
For years, as I have worked on The Varied God, I have made notes for a subject I’d like to address in the book, namely the exact origin of the word ‘season.’ Yes, I am an English major, and have a fascination with words and word origins. You may recall that my interest in the seasons began with my curiosity over the whole ‘fall’ or ‘autumn’ question, and why autumn is the only season that gets two names. As with most words in English, there are some interesting things about the word ‘season.’
It comes to English from the Old French word saison or seison, where it meant ‘a sowing,’ or ‘a planting.’ That word in turn descended from the Latin word sationem, which had a similar meaning, ‘time of sowing, seeding time.’ This time could be spring or autumn, depending on when grain crops are sown in various areas. The sense of a season being ‘seeding time’ is embedded in our language in other places.
One of the few verses of the Bible to speak of seasons comes just after Noah has found dry land. God promises that, ‘While the Earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’ (Genesis, 8:22) In this formulation it would seem that ‘seedtime and harvest’ are synonyms for spring and autumn, except for recalling that ‘seedtime’ may be a more general reference to seasons, and that seedtime and harvest can both come more than once a year. The areas of Mesopotamia and the Levant where flood myths such as the story of Noah first arose have never been characterized by a distinctly four-season climatic regime.
Further, this quote comes from my King James Bible, which first edified English Protestants in the early years of the 17th century. There is evidence that at that time, the word ‘season’ was not commonly used to mean specific times of the year, and that a word such as ‘seedtime’ may have had the more exact meaning. The Bible’s most famous seasonally-based verses, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (To everything there is a season . . .), which I have discussed at length here, use the word ‘season’ to mean units of time, not climatic designations.
One of the more important documents in American history is William Bradford’s The History of Plimoth Colony. Bradford, leader of the pilgrims on the Mayflower, wrote this meticulous journal of their expedition as it was happening, from 1620 onwards. In Chapter IX of his book, during the sea voyage here, he writes, ‘After they had injoyed faire weather and winds for a season . . .’ There are two things to note about this. One is that he uses the word ‘season’ to mean a period of time, not ‘spring,’ or ‘winter.’ The other is that his language is generally archaic. With this in mind, scholars have long issued new editions of Bradford’s History, with the language updated. Here is the same quote from a 1948 ‘translation': ‘After they had enjoyed fair winds and weather for some time . . .’
But as the Enlightenment progressed, certain things became more scientific. In 1780 Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria convened a group of meteorologists he charged with formalizing how weather and climate were studied. They decided that the meteorological seasons would be defined by temperature and designated as three-month periods beginning on the first day of the first month in which that season’s temperature pattern prevailed. Spring would run from March 1 to May 31, summer from June 1 to August 31. This group only met until 1795, but meteorologists still recognize these seasons, even though the run of mankind still designates the seasons by their more ancient, celestial markers of solstices and equinoxes. It seems that seasons defined by this more rigorous standard needed a term reserved just for them. While the word ‘season’ is still used occasionally to mean some unit of time other than a meteorological season, we now understand these to be exceptions.
The homonym ‘season,’ meaning to add savory ingredients to food, actually originates in the same Latin root, sationem, or a time of seeding. As it sat in Old French for several centuries, developing its various shades of meaning having to do with the passage of the natural year, the word took on an additional meaning of ‘to ripen,’ which of course includes adding flavor, and saison grew into the general term for adding flavor.
One more interesting note: the most famous musical work about the seasons, Antonio Vivaldi’s quartet of violin concerti known as The Four Seasons, is called, in Italian, Le Quattro Stagione. The term stagione, though it too means seasons, does not come from the same Latin root, but from the word meaning ‘stations,’ or divisions. It is a curiosity of language development that Italian, the language closest to Latin, would have found a different word to cover this phenomenon, while many European languages use descendants of sationem.
The freezing rain is falling as I wind up this essay. I am anxious for the engine to rev up at last and take us away from this season, to pull out of this station where we’ve been stuck for way too long now. Maybe by the next time I write I’ll have blissful things to say about spring. One hopes, doesn’t one?