You give me (spring) fever: six words from the verdant language of spring
The season of spring is an explosion of the senses: bright colours, birdsong, the smell of fresh grass, the swish of undergrowth whipped by your wellingtons, the warm touch of the sun on your face. And with this very welcome sensory overload an explosion of language also springs forth.
However, as the American poet Henry Van Dyke once observed, ‘the first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another.’
The first day of spring (astronomically speaking) is officially marked by the vernal equinox, which tends to fall on the 20th March in the northern hemisphere and the 22nd September in the southern hemisphere each year.
The word vernal came to English from the Latin ‘vernalis’ in the mid-16th century, ‘ver’ meaning ‘spring’, and is often used to describe things associated with this verdant (we’ll come to this word later!) time of year. Vernal flowers, for example, are the blooms that appear in the spring, like crocuses, daffodils, and narcissuses.
Equinox, meanwhile, is the point when day and night are at their closest to a neat twelve hours each. A Middle English word, it was introduced from the Old French ‘equinoxe’ or Latin ‘aequinoctium’ – ‘aequi’ meaning ‘equal’ and ‘nox’ meaning ‘night’.
Spring lasts until the solstice in June – solstice also ultimately coming from a Latin root, ‘solstitium’, describing the point at which the sun seems to stand still in the sky – however, whether the weather actually warms up between these astronomical bookends depends far more on atmospherics; in 1975, snow fell on 2nd June, which was probably the most unusual weather to interrupt a cricket match!
The Old English word for spring was lencten, which is now more familiarly seen shortened in Lent, the 40-day period of fasting that comes before Easter in Christian teachings. Lencten has links to the German word for ‘long’, perhaps a reference to the season as the time when the days begin to lengthen after the vernal equinox.
If an April shower should interrupt your walk, then you might find yourself surrounded by frogs hopping in every direction; ‘frog rain’, as this is sometimes called, is thought to be caused by the frogs waiting for a spring shower in order to get to their birth pond safely. Soon these ponds are teeming with clouds of tiny tadpoles, wriggling about the surface of the water in search of food.
Like Lencten, teeming is an Old English word with Germanic origins. The word originally meant ‘give birth to’ or ‘be or become pregnant’, but in the late 16th century, the meaning moved closer to ‘be full of’.
Interestingly, another sense of teem – quite distinct from this Germanic lineage, hailing from Old Norse instead – means to ‘pour down’ or ‘fall heavily’, especially in relation to water. Watch out for those frog rains teeming down in April!
Grass and undergrowth soaked by the rain can appear more green and lush. In one sense, the word refers to plants growing ‘luxuriantly’, as first seen in the Middle Ages and often associated with Shakespeare. It’s thought that this could spring from an alteration of the now obsolete ‘lash’, meaning ‘soft’ or ‘lax’, from Old French ‘lache’ – indeed it’s easy to think of lush grassy fields as soft and lax after a spring shower.
Imagine your favourite springtime walk: verdant forests just beginning to grow their canopy of leaves, the forest floor carpeted with new, young grass spotted by bluebells blooming in the sunshine…
The word verdant suggests rich, bright shades of green, the adjective primarily used in relation to the countryside or other rich vegetation. However, despite being frequently used in evocative descriptions of spring scenes, it does not share an etymology with vernal, which as we saw earlier stems from ‘ver’ the Latin for ‘spring’. In fact, verdant is most likely from the Old French ‘verdeant’, present participle of ‘verdoier’, meaning ‘be green’. Its own Latin base is ‘viridis’ – ‘green’.
Overwhelmed by the appearance of spring’s riot of colour, chirping of nesting birds, and buzzing of insects? Sounds like you have a case of spring fever.
Spring fever, defined as ‘a feeling of restlessness and excitement felt at the beginning of spring’, is not merely constrained to delight at the new season, however, but is often associated with a rush of romantic feelings – think Bambi, Thumper, and Flower’s springtime romances in Disney’s 1942 film, Bambi.
Though, you might be wise not to wish for a bout of spring fever; the term may once have been linked to an actual illness, perhaps a head cold or even scurvy. In Old English, this was known as ‘lenctenadle’, the ‘spring disease’. Let’s hope it’s not catching!