Welcome children of the Spring,
In your garbs of green and gold,
Lifting up your sun-crowned heads
On the verdant plain and wold.
-Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Dandelions)
By late March/early April (in the Northern Hemisphere), as the buds begin to swell on the trees, flowers begin to emerge from the soil, and the grass turns green again, even the most ardent of Winter enthusiasts are ready for warmer weather and a break from the snow and ice. Once thought of as the beginning of the year and now more often considered the beginning of the growing season, the value of Spring cannot be overstated- even if it just means giving you a break between the frigid cold of Winter and the sweltering heat of Summer. While it’s a time of growing, renewal, or just Spring cleaning, Springtime has a meaning for all of us, but, when it comes to the word’s meaning and origin, some of us are a bit lost.
With Stonehenge – at approximately 5,000 years old – widely speculated to be used to predict the vernal equinox, we’ve understood ‘Spring’ for a long time; however, the word itself has only been around since circa 1325. Replacing the Old English Lencten, derived from Lent (the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter), the concept of our season Spring derives from the notion of ‘leaping up, growing, and bursting forth’ found in the Old English springan, which itself derived from the Proto-Germanic sprengan. Essentially, the verbal form of the Old English term gave rise to the noun which appeared in Middle English due to understanding it as a period of renewal, growth, and ‘springing forth’ after Winter.
The first appearance of the word Spring occurred in the Northumbrian Middle English poem Cursor Mundi (Runner of the World), which, in its nearly 30,000 lines, metaphorically mentions: “The third colour..As Rose red is in spring, And seems also a burning thing.”
Moving beyond knowing that it’s Spring due to the action of flora and fauna, we can see in the 1481 writing/translation of William of Tyre’s Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum (History of Deeds done Beyond the Sea) by William Caxton in his work, Godeffroy of Boloyne, that Spring is now gaining substance in its own right as the first season of the year, stating: “I myself, if it please god, assone as the spring of the year cometh, shall come and haste to secure.”
A half century later, in 1537, we would begin to see the familiar placement of the season as between winter and summer of a particular year, which was first recorded in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Letters, appearing in the 1977 journal of letters and philology, English Studies, writing that: “The king should take no prejudice as his faithful friend the proroguing theroff to the spring.”
Firmly established and well-understood, the word now began to be used more generally, as a figurative concept relating to – especially in the case of people – boundless vigor and energy, purity, innocence, and youth, with the first example of this being found in Thomas Wilson’s The Art of Rhetoric (1553) which, referencing Henry Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, and his younger brother, Lord Charles Brandon, states how they were: “Being in their prime tide, & spring of their age.”
Though many of us may no longer be (or at least feel like) in the spring of our age, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give pause to appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature’s rebirth, and stop to smell the proverbial flowers – at least when it isn’t raining and before it gets too hot.