Words about words
M. Michael Brady
The beginnings of the four seasons of the year, or “Earth’s Seasons” as they collectively are called in astronomical terms, are red-letter days (“Red Letter Days,” The Norwegian American, Feb. 23, 2018: www.norwegianamerican.com/norsk/red-letter-days).
There are two equinoxes (jevndøgn in Norwegian), when day and night are equally long, and two solstices (solverv in Norwegian) between them on the shortest winter day and longest summer day of the year. They have social as well as religious significance. Perhaps of greatest interest for Norwegians, the day of the spring equinox (vårjevndøgn) each year is the starting point for the calculation of the date of Easter Sunday and consequently of the popular Easter holiday.
These four Norwegian names are simple, direct, and easily understood by people who know the basic words of the language. Jevndøgn literally translates as “equal day,” and solverv to “sun turn.” So children learn them easily, relying on words they already know. Moreover, these Norwegian words have an aura of being at home in the language, firmly anchored at the beginning of the country’s written history.
Look up the words in a Norwegian / Danish dictionary and you’ll find that Danish shares that simplicity. Look them up in a Norwegian / Swedish dictionary, and you’ll find almost the same situation, though a bit more complex for reasons beyond the scope of this short overview. But look them up in a Norwegian / English dictionary and you’ll find that the simplicity disappears. Jevndøgn translates to “Equinox,” from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), and solverv translates to “Solstice,” from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). These words must be learned, often with effort, as their meanings are not obvious to speakers of English or other Germanic languages, unless, of course, they are familiar with Latin.
This situation in English is most likely due to the words being intruders. “Equinox” first appeared in 1588, in a translation of Jesuit Canisius’s Catechism. “Solstice” entered English earlier, in 1250, in “The Story of Genesis and Exodus,” an English song of the time. The two words in English might differ from those of today had the history of religion in Europe differed from that which has so affected the evolution of European languages.
Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.
This article originally appeared in the September 21, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.