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Why It’s Called an ‘Equinox’ and Other Delightful Spring Words You Should Know

6 minute read

Today is the first day of spring, also know as the equinox. While that might sound like a name of a place where hunks sculpt their biceps, the word comes from the Latin term aequinoctium, meaning equality between day and night (aequi = equal and ­noct = night). That is what today is after all: one of the two periods of the year when the sun crosses the equator and the days and nights are in equal length all over the earth, marking our spin from winter to spring.

But equinox is just the beginning. Here is TIME’s guide to other great words you just might get to use in the coming months, whether you’re chatting to an American farmer, a South Asian in a whirlwind or a British person having marital problems (with most adapted definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary):

blackberry winter (n.): Used chiefly in the southern regions of America, this refers to a period of cold weather in the late spring, more boringly called a “cold snap.” The term is said to come from chilly weather appearing after the blackberry plants have begun to bloom, which Americans will feast on in cobblers throughout summer. Other terms for this are after-winter, blackthorn winter, dogwood winter or redbud winter.

Chelidonian (adj): This delicious adjective refers to spring winds, and is derived from the Greek word for swallow (as in the bird, not the thing you do after masticating). Because the Chelidonian winds are said to arise at the first coming of yonder swallows.

cuckoo (n.): You might know the cuckoo for the clocks these birds decorate, but these migratory birds are also known as the “harbingers of spring,” arriving in places like the British Isles in April. Fun fact: the cuckoo is also known for not hatching its own offspring but depositing its eggs in the nest of other, unsuspecting small birds— which is where we get the term cuckold, referring to the unsuspecting husband of an unfaithful wife, who could be raising another man’s child.

eating its first grass (v.): If something is eating its first grass, then it is in its first year. In previous centuries, people measured time by the yearly growths of grass, which happen in the spring and early summer. So they might also talk about that wild party that happened “last grass” or someone being seven years old “next grass” or a cow that is “eating its first grass.” Today, this term might be revived in Washington and Colorado with a rather different meaning.

fast-day (n.): For centuries, the people of New Hampshire all got together and didn’t eat — or observed a fast — on a day appointed by the governor each spring. Fast Day was proclaimed in New Hampshire in 1681, as a desperate attempt to avert the death of the governor, which had been foretold by Haley’s Comet. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Though the original purpose faded, New Hampshirites kept enjoying a three-day holiday until 1991, when the legislature abolished Fast Day.

gowk’s-storm (n.): This is another fun term derived from the cuckoo, known as a gowk in some Scottish dialects. The gowk’s-storm is a spring gale, particularly one that occurs at the time the cuckoo flies onto the scene.

Hebe (n.): Hebe (pronounced HEE-bee), taking her name from the Greek word for youthful prime and puberty, is the daughter of Zeus and Hera, as well as the goddess of youth and spring. So her name has also been used to refer to women in their early youth as well as waitresses and barmaids. Try that out at your local watering hole (or at least start drink orders with “Barkeep!”).

Maia (n.): Maia was also a pretty lady, one of the many that Zeus had a thing for and who bore his son Hermes. In Roman mythology, she came to personify the spring and fertility, and is said to have given her name to the month of May.

month-brother (n.): You probably know that April showers bring May flowers, but you might not know that both March and April are known as “month-brothers,” being the rowdier, stormier siblings to lovely May, known as a “month-sister.” These names come from the poetic stylings of Englishman Gerard Manley Hopkins.

mud time (n.): In the Northeast, the straightforwardly named mud time is the period of early spring before the ground is completely thawed and there is much mud. “As soon as spring opens, the people trot out their old shoes,” wrote the New Hampshire Portsmouth Herald in 1902, “and have them patched up to wear through mud time.”

pishachi (n.): If you happen to be in South Asia this spring and experience a whirlwind, you should tell your friends you are in a pishachi, a word that comes from the Sanskrit term for female demon. If you happen to be in Africa and stuck in a “hot, dry, suffocating sand-wind” which sweeps across the deserts at intervals during the spring, you should know that you are in a simoom. But you probably shouldn’t say it, because you will get sand in your mouth.

primaveral (adj.): This term, coming from the Latin primum ver, or earliest spring, can be used to describe anything happening in early spring. In Italian, spring is known as primavera, from which the tasty pasta dish takes its name. Spring can also be referred to as prime temps (from Latin primus, meaning of the highest quality, and temps, referring to time), as well as prime time and prime tide.

shunto (n.): In Japan, springtime is a time for wage-bargaining. Also known as the “labor offensive,” there are plenty of prognostications about what will happen in this year’s round of talks between major firms and labor unions.

vernal (adj.): Vernal is another word that can be used to describe anything happening or appearing in the springtime, coming from Latin vernus, which means “pertaining to spring.” So if you vernalize something, you make it spring-like. If something has spring-like qualities, you might note its vernality. And if a friend of yours has a lovely garden growing in the spring, you should probably compliment them on their impressive vernation.

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