Primavera and spring

Peter Schickele is a scholar of classical music who for decades has let his lighter side out in the persona of P.D.Q. Bach. Schickele enjoys playing around not only with his first love, music, but with what appears to be his second, language. According to one of Schickele’s parodies, P.D.Q. Bach supposedly wrote his piece “La Prima Vera” not, following Vivaldi, to represent the season of spring, but as a tribute to his first wife; both wives, we are told, were named Vera, so the title makes clear that this piece was dedicated to the first Vera.

Although Spanish now mostly uses primero ‘first’ where Italian says primo, in both languages the word for ‘spring’ is primavera.’ Etymology, which knows nothing of P.D.Q. Bach, nevertheless confirms not only that the prima in primavera really is the prima that means ‘first,’ but also that the modern Spanish and Italian name for the season came into being as a way of distinguishing one ver from the next. The Latin noun ver meant ‘spring,’ but because the weather and the conditions of the earth are quite different at the beginning of that three-month period from those at its end, people must have felt the need to distinguish the two parts of the season. Latin speakers began to use the phrase primo vere, literally ‘in the first [of] spring,’ for the early part of the season. The two words in the phrase eventually fused, and the result in the springtime of the development of the Romance languages was primavera. Ver had been a neuter noun in Latin, but because neuter plurals typically ended in -a, speakers of Vulgar Latin often reinterpreted those neuter plurals as feminine singulars; that process of gender reassignment—how modern that sounds—most likely explains how primavera ended up feminine.

Corresponding to primavera, Spanish has the adjective primaveral ‘pertaining to or occurring in the spring.’ The Latin adjective with that meaning had been vernalis, which literary and scientific registers of Spanish and English have borrowed as vernal, which is why the equinox that occurs every March is designated the vernal equinox. English calls the new season that begins then spring because in Europe (where the Germanic languages developed from Indo-European) this is the time when plants spring forth from the previously frozen ground of winter. In a different kind of coming forth from the earth, English also uses spring to refer to water that emerges from underground. In the human realm, children who come forth into the world are their parents’ offspring.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


26 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    May 04, 2015 @ 13:48:02

    I harvested milkweed seeds last fall. They remained in the refrigerator for a few months. In February, I put them in the freezer for a few weeks to vernalize them. It is supposed to increase the germination rate. We shall see if I get any offspring from them.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 04, 2015 @ 14:54:52

      The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives 1933 as the year of the first known use of vernalization, which is defines as ‘the act or process of hastening the flowering and fruiting of plants by treating seeds, bulbs, or seedlings so as to induce a shortening of the vegetative period.’

      Let’s hope you get your milkweed offspring this spring.


  2. Maria F.
    May 04, 2015 @ 18:13:35

    I’m springing to this post at prima facie, not knowing what will come next…


  3. Maria F.
    May 04, 2015 @ 19:02:01

    Yes, it seems it could date back to the beginning of Christianity, way before the Latin “vera” began to be used with the “veil of Veronica”. “The image of [Christ’s] face remained on the cloth, and the “veil of Veronica” has been preserved in Rome from the 8c. Her popularity rose with the propagation of the Stations of the Cross, and this connection led to the folk-etymology derivation of the name from Latin vera “true” + Greek eikon “imagen, with the name “Veronica”, French Veronique, a variant of Greek Berenike”. Going back to the Greek usage: Macedonian Greek “Berenike” (classical Greek Pherenike), literally “bringer of victory,” from pherein “to bring”, and “Persephone”, the goddess of spring. I just thought it was curious.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 04, 2015 @ 19:39:18

      When you say “it could date back to the beginning of Christianity,” what does the “it” refer to?


      • Maria F.
        May 04, 2015 @ 19:48:28

        The “Vero” usage, latinized from “pherein” and changed completely to “true”, as the name “Pherenike” clearly existed; it was latinized to mean something else. I mean French “Veronique”, and Spanish “Veronica” were originally Greek names; and the goddess of Spring “Persephone” also had the “pherein” phonon, “to bring”.


  4. Maria F.
    May 04, 2015 @ 19:20:43

    “Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld. The myth of her abduction represents her function as the personification of vegetation, which shoots forth in spring and withdraws into the earth after harvest; hence, she is also associated with spring as well as the fertility of vegetation. “PERSE′PHONE (Persephonê), in Latin Proserpina, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. (Hom. Il. xiv. 326, Od. xi. 216; Hes. Theog. 912, &c. ; Apollod. i. 5. § 1.) Her name is commonly derived from pherein phonon, “to bring” or “cause death,” ….The Latin Proserpina, which is probably only a corruption of the Greek, was erroneously derived by the Romans from proserpere, “to shoot forth,” so “pherein” is the original meaning of “bringing forth”, probably alluding to spring in Greek, and suggesting that perhaps the name “Berenike” derived from classical Greek “Pherenike”. I know, totally unrelated, but interesting.


  5. Maria F.
    May 04, 2015 @ 21:38:48

    And look at the meaning I found on “Primavera” in Spanish Wikipedia:

    “La primavera es una de las cuatro estaciones de las zonas templadas de nuestro planeta, posterior al invierno y anterior al verano . El término “prima” proviene de «primer» y “vera” de «verdor». So it looks like they got the “vera” from “verdor”(greenish).


  6. Maria F.
    May 05, 2015 @ 00:18:01

    Thanks for the link Steve! What I’m seeing now is that “Primavera” is actually Italian, and “Primavera” translates in English to “Spring” – The theme of Spring is clearly evident throughout Botticelli’s masterpiece, but the name “La Primavera” was first termed in 1550 by Giorgio Vasari, Author of “The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”, when he viewed the painting at Villa di Castello. So it’s an Italian Renaissance term created by Vasari.


    • Maria F.
      May 05, 2015 @ 00:40:31

      So Vasari coined the term, and it stayed that way. Common interpretation of Botticelli’s Primavera bases itself heavily on that of Giorgio Vasari, who understood the painting as a portrayal of mythological rebirth in celebration of the Renaissance, which also means “rebirth.” Nevertheless, all that rambling about the Greek terms was interesting though.


  7. Maria F.
    May 05, 2015 @ 06:29:49

    Here it is: (but still a term created by Vasari):

    “From Vulgar Latin primavera, from Latin primus + ver. Compare Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, and Sicilian primavera, Romanian primăvară, Old French primevoire, Occitan primver, Friulian primevere, Romansch primavaira.”

    “From Old Portuguese veer, from Latin vidēre, present active infinitive of videō (“to see”), from Proto-Italic *widēō (“to see”), from Proto-Indo-European *weyd- (“to know; see”).”

    An Italian word that “stuck” in the Renaissance due to Botticelli’s painting and Vasari’s naming. So there was no “vera” but “ver”.

    This is how influential that painting actually was.


  8. Maria F.
    May 06, 2015 @ 15:42:59

    YOU are right when you said “Ver” was “spring” in Latin (Nominative singular) and “Vera” was nominative plural. Then Spanish changed it to “ver” which is to see. So to analyze the word in Spanish is interesting; nevertheless, now I see WHERE Vasari took it from. He took it from Latin, of course. This was the piece that was missing for me. All the analysis I did in this post from the Greek word “pherein” meaning “to bring” or “bring forth”, is more related to the “Spring” in English. “Primavera” remaining a Renaissance term when fusing “prima” + “vera”. Wikipedia tells you the “vera” is from “ver” in Spanish, but Vasari took it from Latin.


  9. shoreacres
    May 08, 2015 @ 22:04:43

    What’s certain is that, in a time of warm breezes and flowering plants, there’s nothing better than pasta primavera and a nice spring wine.


  10. dianeandjack
    May 09, 2015 @ 08:03:13

    Fascinating post and comments! Feliz Primavera!!!!! 🙂


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