Winter brings everything from shorter days and cooler temperatures to fascinating cultural celebrations and deep linguistic mysteries. Over the past several weeks, we have spent time celebrating the Winter Solstice as well as the New Year. We also have explored synonyms for snow in different languages. We have also taken a little additional time with Latin terms for the wintry white stuff. With the arrival of midwinter, we dove into the cultural traditions surrounding Groundhog Day. We also examined the deep historical roots of this North American holiday. Before we leave winter behind, we wanted to dive into world languages and cultures through one more language spotlight. Read on for more fun and fascinating facts about languages and linguistics!
The Shortest Day Of The Year, And The Start Of Winter
Every year, winter officially begins a few days before the celebration of Christmas. This day, called the Winter Solstice, is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The origin of the word “solstice” traces its historic roots back to both Middle English and Old French. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word “solstice” is actually a Middle English term borrowed from Old French. That word originated from the Latin “solstitium,” which combines “sol” for sun + “stit-” meaning stopped or stationary. The history of this term is almost as amazing as the awesome synonyms for snow that we discovered!
As a matter of fact, the Winter Solstice occurs not only on a specific day, but also at a specific time on that day. The solstice corresponds to the moment when the North Pole is at its furtherest point in facing away from the sun. At this time the sun is also shines over the Tropic of Capricorn. It signals the beginning of the winter season, which will last for 12 weeks. Even though the solstice does not fall until later in the month of December, that month is often viewed as one of the months of winter. Many regional languages in Europe, in fact, have traditional names for the month that refer to its quality as a cold wintry month. For example, the word “December” in Belarusian refers to as “snjéžan’” or “snow month.” The artist Jakub Marian has created a lovely illustrated map of Europe that tracks traditional regional names for the last month of the year.
Welcome To The New Year, And New Year’s Resolutions
Not even two weeks after the Winter Solstice, we celebrate the beginning of the New Year. This worldwide celebration traces back centuries, with roots in many cultures. Indeed, Scottish poet Robert Burns penned the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788, more than 200 years ago. According to Merriam-Webster, the lyrics “Auld Lang Syne” means “times gone by.” The song is believed to have been based on a Scottish folk song. It is often sung around the world on New Year’s Eve to welcome in the new year. We also, when exploring the new year this year, tracked down an amazing video of New Year’s greetings in sign languages from around the world. So how do you sign “Happy New Year”? A Seek the World video, by Deaf traveler Calvin Young, shares over 100 different sign language greetings.
Another tradition celebrated by many cultures around the world is that of setting New Year’s resolutions. In fact, History Magazine shares that from the ancient Babylonians to the Romans, speakers of different languages worldwide have made new year’s resolutions. According to recent statistics, almost 50 percent of Americans say that they usually make New Year’s resolutions. But making a resolution is not the same as keeping one. Other studies show that not even 10 percent of us are able to keep our resolutions. This data begs the question if our New Year’s resolutions made to be broken? History shows that this may be the case. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “It was common enough by the beginning of the 19th century that people would make and fail to keep such resolutions that the habit was satirized.”
Fascinating Words for Snow, And More Fun Winter Terms
Which language has the most words for snow? The Scottish language clocks in at over 400 words for the lovely white stuff. These words cover everything from types of snow to types of snowflakes. The Scots also have words for what clothes to wear when it snows and how snow affects animals. The Scots even have words that encompass snow and the supernatural, like “snaw-ghast” which means “a ghost seen in the snow.” What other languages have the most synonyms for snow? The Icelandic, Inuit, and Sammi languages are all runner ups. Each one averages between 50 and 180 words for snow-related words. The Guardian reports that academics have been working on the first “Historical Thesaurus of Scots,” which will include every word in the Scots language from earliest records until today. This thesaurus will include the 421 Scots words for snow, including synonyms for snow as well as terms like “skelf”, which means “a large snowflake.”
What about words for snow in other languages? While few languages log as many words as Scots or even Inuit, other languages do have a number of fascinating words for snow. For example, Latin words for snow range from “onding” to “skift.” Merriam Webster shares these synonyms for snow and more for the white stuff. Light snowfalls and heavy blizzards make the list, as does of slushy snow, known as “sposh.” Some words that make this list even have several meanings. For example, “grue” means “thin floating ice” or “snow,” but can also mean “to shiver or shudder.” What about wonderful terms for winter weather in English? This Mental Floss article explores words like frost flowers, hard rime, and thundersnow. These terms, though not commonly used, help to describe specific types of cold weather and other winter phenomena.
The Celebration Of Midwinter, And A Watch For Groundhogs
Did you know that the practice behind Groundhog Day dates back thousands of years to the ancient Celts? In fact, this holiday, which falls on February 2nd, marks the midpoint of winter. This midpoint is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Most ancient civilizations depended the movements of the sun and stars, as well as other natural phenomena, to indicate the best time to start planting crops or to begin a harvest. Over the centuries, people also looked to all kinds of animals, from snakes to bears, for insights into the weather. Ancient Germanic people, for example, paid attention to how badgers responded to their shadows when emerging from their dens. In time, this practice came to the United States and by the late 1800s it had taken the form of Groundhog Day.
So what is the connection between Groundhog Day as celebrated in the United States and the movements of the sun? And what do the ancient Celts have to do with this midwinter holiday? At one point groups of Celts lived all over continental Europe. This culture notably left its mark on the calendar. In fact, several of the Celts’ major holidays have survived in some form into modern times. This Smithsonian article unpacks the long shadow of Celtic tradition behind this American holiday. So what does midwinter have to do with groundhogs and other hibernating animals? A CBS Sunday Morning video explores the deep history behind this midwinter holiday. This clip also explores why Groundhog Day features a hibernating animal and how it marks the upcoming spring. We find ourselves almost as fascinated by Groundhog Day as by synonyms for snow.
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About the Author: Christine Switzer