Springtime

Spring has sprung, and so it seems like a great opportunity to take a look at spring vocabulary.

First of all there is the word for the season itself. You might be wondering if it is related to the verb “spring”, and indeed it is. These days, we tend to use the verb more to mean “jump” or “suddenly appear” (as in “she sprang out from behind the tree”.) But there was a time when it was also used to mean “rise, come forth, grow”. An obvious reference to what happens in springtime – plants grow, flowers come forth, and so on.

It comes from the Old English verb springan, which has not changed a great deal over the centuries, if we consider the past tense form sprang and the past participle sprungen. Here is an example from the Blickling Homilies, dated to the 10th century

Ðæt cild on sprang (the babe leapt [in her womb])

You can see the same past tense as is used in modern English here. An alternative past tense was sprong – you can see it in this reference from the Poem of Beowulf, which dates from between the 8th and 11th centuries, possibly around the 9th.

Swát ǽdrum sprong (blood spurted from the veins).

Springan derives from Proto-Germanic *sprengan, from which we also have Old Norse springa, Dutch and German springen, Norwegian sprang, Swedish springa. The Proto-Germanic form is, of course, not the end of our trail, from there we go to Proto-Indo-European, and the form *sprengh, an alternative, nasalised form of the root *spergh, which meant “to move, go quickly, to spring”.

Now let’s take a look at another “spring” word: Lent. Today, this word is associated more with a religious meaning, and is used to refer to the period of time before Easter. But this was not always the case, and in fact, this is from the Old English word for spring; lengten, lencten. Here is an example from King Alfred’s version of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (De Consolatione Philosophiae), probably from the 880s.

Swá nú lencten and hærfest; on lencten hit gréwþ, and on hærfest hit fealwiaþ

(As now spring and autumn – it spring it grows, in autumn it ripens.)

You can probably recognise another word that has developed in meaning since then: harvest. But I will deal with that in more detail at another time. Going back to lencten, there is a cognate in modern German in the word Lenz, also meaning “spring”. And where did it come from? Well, it came to Old English from West Germanic *langa-tinaz and literally means “long days”, a natural way to think of the season following the long, dark days of winter!

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