The Glamour of the Grammar: 'Tis the season

It's time for another meandering romp through roots and etymology.

August 2, 2009 14:35
4 minute read.

It's time for another meandering romp through roots and etymology. In honor of the long days of summer, we'll use those interesting if sometimes misleading lenses to view the names of the seasons, starting, naturally, with summer.

In Hebrew, "summer" is 'kayitz', and right off the bat we find ourselves faced with uncertainty. It looks like 'kayitz' comes from the word 'ketz', "end," which would make sense because the summer is the end of one of the years in Hebrew. (At least two traditional ways of reckoning the year were popular. The more widely known system in modernity starts the year in September with Rosh Hashana; the end of the year, therefore, coincides roughly with the end of summer. But the High Holy Days fall in Tishri, the seventh month, and that's an odd time to begin a year. The other traditional start of the year is, naturally, in the first month, at Pessah in Nisan.) While 'ketz' comes from the root 'kuf.tzadi.tzadi', not 'kuf.yud.tzadi', confusion between double-letter roots like 'kuf.tzadi.tzadi' and roots with yuds and vavs in the middle ("hollow roots") is common.

For people who don't like the heat, it's tempting to note that yuds and vavs are often interchanged, and then to try to relate 'kayitz' to the root 'kuf.vav.tzadi', "to despise." But that connection is probably a coincidence.

A third possibility is that the word is related to 'yud.kuf.tzadi', "awakening," and that, as in Jeremiah, the word originally meant "summer produce." Finally, 'kayitz' may come from an ancient word for "heat." I like the third option, but you can take your pick.

The word for "fall," 'stav' (that's 'samech-tav-yud-vav') is even more difficult to pin down. It occurs but once in the Bible, in Song of Songs, where the conclusion of the 'stav' happens at the same time that the rains end. So it didn't mean "fall" back then. It was likely another word for "winter." But the modern Hebrew word for "winter" is 'horef', seemingly from the root 'het.resh.peh', "defy" or "sharp." The meaning of the root may originally have centered around verbal rebuke and then taken on a wider meaning. Nowadays, we most often hear it in the common adjective 'harif', "spicy" or "hot." Winter, then, was the difficult season that attacked us with its weather, the "sharp season," as it were. So just as we found a linguistic way to justify not liking the heat of summer, those who don't like winter now have support, too.

It's hard not to like spring, though. The Hebrew word for that season, 'aviv', comes from the root '', from which we get 'ev', "young shoot." We see that rare word in Job, where it's part of the expression 'b'ibo', "in its youth." So 'aviv' is, appropriately, the season of new growth. (Other words with alefs and bets, like 'av', "father," and 'av', "[the month of] Av," are unrelated.) The word 'aviv' may be best known from Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv, literally, "'tel' of spring" or "springtime 'tel'." A "'tel'," as we saw once before in a very different context, is a hill formed from what's left over after successive cities are built on top of each other.

Confusingly, though, Tel Aviv is not a 'tel' - it's essentially flat, and unlike Tel Dan or Tel Gezer, there are no destroyed cities under it - and it has little to do with spring.

There is a "Tel Aviv" in Ezekiel, but there the word 'aviv' might be a loan word meaning "ruins," and we have no reason to think that Ezekiel's Tel Aviv was where the current one lies.

The modern name Tel Aviv entered the language when Nahum Sokolow translated Theodor Herzl's visionary work, 'Altneuland' (literally, old-new-land) as "Tel Aviv" in Hebrew. It seemed like a nice poetic choice because the Hebrew name already existed in the Bible, and the two parts nicely represented the "old-new"-ness that Herzl was trying to convey. The 'tel', with its repeatedly destroyed cities, was the old, and the "spring" was the new. Though they may not have been aware of the biblical connotations, the founders of Tel Aviv 100 years ago took Sokolow's "Tel Aviv" to represent their city: the place where on old sand dunes was built a new, calm, idyllic city. And that's the beauty of etymology. Once you start, you never know where you'll end up.

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