Sure, it’s a cliché to get all filled up with poetic notions at the first sight of spring, but here we are. There is something about more birds and flowers and fewer scarves and gloves that seems to raise everyone’s spirits. It is, however, not the poetry of the season, but rather that of the word itself – spring – that I wish to talk about here.

Spring has evolved from springing time (and later spring time), which was used in the 14th century, and apparently came into use in the mid-16th century. The etymology is easy enough to derive from the word itself: it is the time when flowers and leaves spring up and out. The word spring then is an image of the visual nature of the season, it tells us what it looks like. Makes sense.

However, other languages seem to have less poetic approaches to spring; their words for the season are more often based on words like first and early, to indicate that it is the first season of the year.

The Italian primavera comes from prima vera which again is derived from the Latin primus ver, meaning first spring. A relative of the word ver is also used in modern English, namely vernal (‘of, in, or appropriate to spring’), as in the vernal equinox. Ver also seems to be related to the Norse vár, which has given us the Norwegian word for spring, vår.

French and German both name the season after the fact that it is the first of the year, the German frühling (spring) comes from the word früh, which means early. The French printemps comes from the Latin tempus primum and simply means first time. Likewise, the Danish vorår means early year (or even ‘pre-year’).

Whereas English describes what the season looks (smells and feels) like, the rest of the class seem more interested in the practical fact that it comes first. To me, though, spring seems to be a more practical word too, simply because we today have countries that follow the same calendar as us (i.e beginning with january), but don’t have spring until late in the year (Australia, among others).

And, mainly, I love a word that so perfectly describes what is happening: flowers, leaves, grass and life are all springing from the earth.


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Yesterday, a poster on campus informed me that we are in the middle of Fairtrade Fortnight. As a non-native English speaker I used to see fortnight as a word used only by characters in Shakespeare plays and old people, but when I moved to the UK, I realized that it is actually commonly used. I am sure you would be seen as quite the eccentric were you to use it in America though.

Fortnight comes from the Old English feowertyne niht and simply means ‘fourteen nights’. Interestingly, though, not that many languages have one single word for that particular unit of time. In Norwegian, for instance. we say ‘fourteen days’ (fjorten dager). Sometimes, a contraction of that (fjortendager, or fourteendays) is used in casual speech, but you cannot use it in writing. It is also more common to use it when talking about something that happened in the past or will happen in the future than something that is going on right now (like Fairtrade Fortnight).

Like Norwegian, most other languages count the days rather than the nights when talking about this unit of time. The Italian una quindicina di giorni means ‘fifteen days’, as does the French une quinzaine de jours. The reason why some languages use fifteen rather than fourteen days (or nights) is that one half of a Lunar month is between fourteen and fifteen days.

A language that actually does have a single word for the two-week period, and that counts nights rather than days, is Welsh, with pythefnos, which means ‘fifteen nights’. Apparently, the custom of counting nights comes from the Germanic tradition.

I remember the first time a dentist’s secretary told me they could book me in ‘a fortnight from now’, and how old-fashioned and incredibly English it sounded. I think I might need a few more years here before I am ready to use it myself.


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It was not my plan to write about two Norwegian words in a row, but today’s events compelled me to do so anyway. The word of the day is utepils, one of my favourite words from my mother tongue.

The word appears in a book I was given recently, ‘The untranslatables’ by C. J. Moore. It is a very entertaining guide to untranslatable words from all over the world, sprinkled with some general knowledge and anecdotes about the different languages. There is a lot of comedy for language geeks in there, including statements like ‘it [Danish] is no language, it’s a throat infection!’ Utepils is one of four Norwegian words mentioned.

The definition in the book is actually not entirely correct, but I will give it to you anyway:

utepils [oot-er-pillss] (noun)

You have to live through the long dark months of a Norwegian winter to appreciate the annual Norwegian rite of utepils. Literally it means “the first drink of the year taken out of doors”. Easter is barely past, with its tradition of hyttepåske – your Easter visit to your remote cabin – and the days are at last getting longer. Although it’s still practically freezing, everyone is queueing up to invite you to a first utepils get-together ar their favourite bar.’*

Actually, utepils simply means any beer enjoyed outside, at any time of the year, but it is true that the first one of the season is a much anticipated ritual.  You know spring is on its way when norwegians brave the chilling temperatures and gather around their pints, sometimes even wrapped in blankets. The practice continues throughout the year though – nothing says summer like utepils.

The word itself is made up of two words, ute (‘outside’) and pils, which is simply short for Pilsner, the type of lager beer most commonly consumed in Norway. Interestingly, pils is also used as a slang verb (‘å pilse’), meaning simply ‘to drink beer’. So when you are getting together for an utepils you are pilsing.

The inspiration for this post was of course that I had the first utepils of the year today. In a way it is like the first ice cream of the year, but for adults. And today’s brew was a proper celebration of spring, the sun was shining and coats were coming off (I have on occasion enjoyed the first utepils in Norway in snow, encouraged by lines such as ‘Oh, come on, it’s a little sunny!’ )

When the sun comes out in Norfolk, the students emerge from the library, and today the campus was buzzing with people enjoying the first utepils of spring, although they did perhaps not know that was what they were doing.

*The untranslatables, C. J. Moore (Chambers) p. 61

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The first word that I have decided to write about is not even English, but Norwegian, like myself.

As a Creative Writing student writing in my second language, I have had a lot of opportunities to think about how the way we use words changes from language to language. When I try to describe some of the differences to others, a thing that I often find myself saying is that you ‘use fewer words’ in Norwegian.

On one of these occasions, I was told, by a lecturer, that the idea of English as richer than other languages is a cliché, that although there might be more words in the English dictionary, the average Englishman does not have a richer vocabulary than the average Norwegian, or Frenchman, or German.

This is of course true, but I never meant to indicate that Norwegian is a lesser language. My point was that because we use our words differently, we sometimes need fewer of them.

Take the sentence ‘Is that what it is?’ In Norwegian it would be ‘Er det det det er?’ The words ‘that’, ‘what’ and ‘it’ have all been replaced with the same word, ‘det’, which thus comes three times in a row. Weird! Notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to wrap their heads around, ‘det’ can refer to several different things in the same sentence; in the example sentence it is an objective personal pronoun, a demonstrative pronoun and an interrogative pronoun, all at once. Personally I find that quite impressive.

Other, similar sentences are ‘Det er det det er‘*, ‘Det er det‘** and ‘Er det det?‘***

Whether one language is richer than the other, I don’t know – generally, I think Norwegian has some words English lacks, and English has some Norwegian does not have – but this three-letter word, ‘det’ is certainly not poor.

* ‘That is what it is’ ** ‘It is’ or ‘That is it’ *** ‘Is it?‘ or ‘Is that it?’

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