Terms for the Seasons of the Year

By Mark Nichol

Words for the seasons and related terms often have both literal and figurative connotations. Here are the words and their various senses.

Spring (from the Old English word springan, akin to the same word in Old High German, which means “to jump”) has a sense of freshness and growth. The word is sometimes used to refer to a sociopolitical movement for greater freedom and tolerance, as in phrases like “Prague Spring” and, more recently, “Arab Spring.”

Spring itself, in these senses, has no direct adjectival form besides springlike; springy refers to the word’s sense of movement. However, vernal (from the Latin word ver, meaning “spring”) is suitable for references to anything pertaining to the spring, or anything fresh, new, or youthful. In a practical sense, it often refers to phenomena unique to springtime, such as a vernal pool, a body of water that dries up as summer encroaches on spring.

Summer (from the Old English word somer) has associations with thriving and mature growth, and it is also a poetic synonym for years in references to one’s age (for example, “in my tenth summer,” “a boy of fifteen summers”). Summery is a prosaic descriptor term describing qualities associated with summer. Estival (from Latin aestivus, meaning “of summer”) also means “pertaining to summer”; estivation is the summertime equivalent of hibernation, or sojourning at one location all summer.

Autumn (ultimately from the Latin word autumnus), interchangeable in literal meaning with fall, has a figurative sense pertaining to full maturity or the onset of decline, as does the adjective autumnal. Winter has associations with decay and inactivity, and wintry, besides its literal sense, refers to being weathered as a result of winter weather or as if by such conditions, or to being aged; it also suggests a cold attitude or response.

Solstice (ultimately from the Latin word solstitium, meaning, literally “sun standing”) and equinox (from the Latin term aequinoctium, a combination of the terms for “equal” and “night”) refer to the times of the year when, respectively, daylight is shortest and day and night are of equal length.

The adjective equinoctial (or equinoctal) refers literally to the first day of spring and fall and has no established figurative meaning. (The first variant is also used as a noun synonymous with equator or referring to a storm during the equinoctial period.) There is no adjectival form of solstice, which corresponds to the onset of summer and winter.

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10 Responses to “Terms for the Seasons of the Year”

  • Matt Gaffney

    The writer’s definition of “solstice” is incorrect.

    The accepted definition of “solstice” is: “either of the two points on the ecliptic at which its [the sun’s] distance from the celestial equator is greatest and which is reached by the sun each year about June 22 and December 22.”

    The notion that the solstices are “. . . the times of the year when . . . daylight is shortest . . .” is dead wrong.

    In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice has the least daylight of any other day of the year, while the summer solstice has the most daylight of any other day of the year. In the southern hemisphere, the reverse is true.

  • Helen A

    Interesting article – but I must take issue with the statement that there is “no adjectival form of solstice”.

    On the contrary, the Oxford English Dictionary gives:
    Solstitial: Of or pertaining to (the time of) a solstice or the solstices. LME.

    solstitial point: Astronomy & Astrology either of the two points on the ecliptic midway between the two equinoxes, which the sun reaches at the solstice.

    I agree with Matt that the definition of solstice gives only part of the story –
    Solstice: Either of the two occasions in the year when the sun reaches its highest or lowest point in the sky at noon, and is directly overhead at noon along one or other of the tropics, the day then being of maximum or minimum length according to hemisphere.

  • Bill

    Well, let’s say the writer is half right in that the day with the shortest amount of daylight is indeed the winter solstice.
    One thing worth noting about the first day of the seasons is that you’ll often see different media sources citing different dates. The reason is that a solstice has a specific time, even to the minute, during a day and some will restrict their “first day of” designation to the first full day of that season.

  • Mark Nichol

    Bill:

    Thanks — I’ll take half right over all wrong any day of the year (even on the solstice). For a moment, I thought I was only one-fourth correct, because of the hemispherical reversal.

    Matt:

    Thanks for setting me straight, but the “accepted” definition is too pedantic; for the earthbound among is, “shortest/longest day” is more practical for cultural, as opposed to scientific, purposes.

  • jaime smith

    note: solstice refers not only to when daylight is shortest (winter solstice) but also when it is longest (summer solstice). Moreover, although the equinoxes fall on the same days in both north and south hemispheres, the summer and winter solstices are reversed on calendar dates between north and south hemispheres.
    Jaime Smith

  • Serena Tatti

    Hi Matt,

    That’s not exactly right. In both the northern and southern hemispheres the winter solstice has the least daylight of any other day of the year, while the summer solstice has the most daylight of any other day of the year. The difference is that the seasons between hemispheres are reversed. At present, it’s autumn (fall) in the southern hemisphere (I’m in Australia) and spring in the northern hemisphere.

  • Rhonda

    The other one you need to be careful of is ‘the first day of ____’. That date can vary according to country. For example, in Australia, the official first day of summer is December 1 (autumn: March 1; winter: June 1; spring: September 1). Other places use the approximate solstice/equinox date for their ‘first day of ___’ (e.g. Canada/US has their first day of summer as June 21).

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Rhonda: “For example, in Australia, the official first day of summer is December 1 (autumn: March 1; winter: June 1; spring: September 1).”

    If true, that is a “de jure” definition and not a “de facto” definition.
    The Parliament of Australia can decide whatever it wants to as a matter of law.

    However, by astronomy, the changes of the season are still defined according to the two equinoxes and the two solstices.

    Perhaps doing it the Australian way is convenient for setting up school schedules, etc. Is it?
    In the United States and Canada, in colleges, what is called the “Fall Semester” actually begins in the latter part of the summer, and it ends towards the end of the fall (sometime in December, before Christmas).
    What is called the “Spring Semester” begins in the wintertime (sometime in January), and it ends in May, usually more than a month before the official end of spring. It gets confusing.

    At schools where I have either studied at or taugh at, the Spring Semester has begun as early as January 4th and as late as January 16th.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I am an electrical engineer, and I once got a recruiting booklet from the Collins Radio Division of Rockwell International, an avionics company. That division is located somewhere in Iowa, and somewhere in the first few pages, it referred to “Our five seasons per year climate.” Come and enjoy it, they said!

    I immediately figured that five seasons per year included one apiece of these:
    1. A very COLD season 2. A very HOT season,
    3. A very RAINY season 4. A Cold, Wet, and Windy season (maybe corresponding to autumn most other places, but without the benefit of colorful trees and sunny days like we have in places like Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Tennessee).
    5. One season of nice weather.

    I decided that the risk of just one pleasant season out of five was not worth taking, and I didn’t even talk with anyone from Collins Radio, even as interested as I am in avionics.

    I have talked with some avionics companies, such as in Arizona, but I have never worked for one. The company near Phoenix had made a lot of avionics for the Space Shutt;e, and that really caught my eye. That was in 1979, too, so there was a lot of work still to be done.
    D.A.W.

  • Anonymous

    Dale, Rockwell Collins is in fact located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Cedar Rapids is known as the “City of Five Seasons,” so named since 1968. The fifth season is the time you have to enjoy the other four. Based on an ad campaign designed to emphasize the short commute times in the city, and also deriving meaning from the Bible verse Ecclesiastes 3:1 – “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

    I have lived in the north though, and I must say that winters up there last in excess of 6 months. One is lucky if the first frost hits after September, and a warm day is rare before April.

    Also the word “hiemal” (from the Latin “hiems,” winter) means pertaining to winter, though not often used it is worth noting.

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