Illustration by Olivia Holden, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
Fall has come and gone, the fruits of our labor have been harvested, and dead leaves clutter the sidewalk, waiting for absent-minded pedestrians to slip on. Now is the time of extreme weather, cozy holiday traditions, and heaps of baked goods — a time we call winter, from Proto-Germanic wintruz (the last and coldest season) and Proto-Indo-European wend (as in water, or “the wet season”).
Despite typical associations with dreariness, winter is a season of abundance — though not in the typical sense of the word. It’s both an end and a beginning, and it connects the decay of fall with the rebirth of spring. Here is a bountiful list of winter words to nourish and enliven your spirits:
Frosty: a cold word for a cold season. It evokes images of fuzzy frost frozen on your car’s windshield, waiting to be scraped off, or the “Your fingers will turn blue and fall off!” threat of frostbite that your parents said to frighten you into wearing mittens. In pop culture, the word appears in iconic personifications of the season, like the sprightly Jack Frost (a derivative of Old Man Winter) and every child’s jolly best friend, Frosty the Snowman.
Frosty the Snowman’s claymation buddy, Rudolf, brings us to our next word, reindeer. It’s a blend of Proto-Germanic Renn (as in rennen, “to run”) and Old Norse dyr. Despite the casual misconception that reindeers don’t actually exist (guilty as charged), these fluffy, big-horned deer, also known as caribou, are found all over Europe, Siberia and North America. Unlike us humans, they generally thrive in the cold, as their fur and blood circulation are adapted to withstand the rough winter season.
We can’t talk about winter without including snow in our list. In places where it actually snows (or any place tangentially connected to colder climates), snow is probably the most winter word if there ever was one. Children in these parts of the world wish for an idyllic White Christmas or an unexpected blizzard to give them a snow day free from school. For adults, it simultaneously provokes loathing of shoveling driveways and joy from witnessing their regular surroundings transform into a glistening winter wonderland.
The greatest refuge from snow and harsh weather is a snug spot in front of the fireplace. The word itself is perhaps nothing but a compound word, but the warmth that fire brings to a familiar place makes for an extremely cozy setting.
Spending time together around a hearth is an iconic pastime that pops up in various cultural representations of the season. Nat King Cole’s swooning voice singing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” comes to mind. Or take the yule log, for example: Originally a Christian variation of the Pagan custom of selecting a special log to symbolically burn throughout the yuletide, it’s a tradition that has since evolved into decorating a cake to look like a log of wood.
Did you know that hibernation comes from the Latin hibernationem, meaning “to pass the winter”? This process is typically associated with wild animals such as bears or rodents that squirrel away their nuts, build up fat deposits and presumably hit snooze on their alarm clocks until spring arrives.
We humans also partake in a more casual version of hibernation: We devour copious amounts of food in celebratory feasts and whittle away most of our time inside where it’s usually warmer and brighter than it is outside. (And while it didn’t make this list, here’s a shoutout to those light therapy lamps that mimic sunlight — you might want to consider investing in one if you experience seasonal affective disorder.)
What better way to hibernate this winter than swaddled in your coziest sweater, fuzziest socks and warmest blanket? Throughout the ages, wool has been a main material used to spin, knit and weave warm articles of clothing. Wool, like wolle (German) or wol (Dutch), comes from Proto-Germanic wulno, the coat of hair from animals such as sheep. Aside from the practical benefits, the soft and gentle sound of the word also feels like a well-needed hug on a cold and dark winter’s day.
Now that we’ve covered the slightly lumpy and questionably-colored wool scarf you received from a distant relative, we can talk about when you received it: during the holidays. December through mid-March is packed full with various (usually religious-based) traditions and festivities.
We’ve got Sankta Lucia, Nikolaustag, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, Three Kings Day and Mardi Gras (and that’s by no means an exhaustive list). Most involve some combination of communal singing (or caroling), bountiful feasts and gift exchanges. For most people, they’re undoubtedly a highlight of the winter season.
3. Winter Solstice
If it’s the middle of December and warm, sunny days are nowhere to be seen, have no fear — the hump day of winter is almost here. That day is the winter solstice, the shortest and bleakest day of the year. After December 21st (or the 22nd or 23rd, depending on the year) days will get progressively longer and brighter until the summer solstice. That is, unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, where you will have the opposite problem.
Many ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice, midwinter or yuletide (remember the Pagan yule log from above?) in different ways. Generally, people regarded it as a period of rebirth, evident to this day in the name for the traditional Persian solstice festival, Shab-e Yaldā (with Yaldā meaning birth).
Spice, from the Latin species, meaning type or sort of something, includes essentially any aromatic substance that adds distinct flavor to consumables (most commonly food, but also medication, if you’re an old-timey alchemist). During winter, you’re pretty likely to run into the likes of vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves for your baked goods.
The cozy holiday tradition of baking brings generations together to mass-produce cookies, cakes, pies and puddings on an almost industrial level for the entire family to share. It really wouldn’t be the holidays without excessive quantities of sweets.
Speaking of spices, eggnog deserves its very own spot in the list. This quirky American word combines egg (pretty self-explanatory) with nog (a strong alcoholic brew) to create, well, milk punch. It doesn’t sound all that appetizing, but trust me when I say that anything with that much cream, sugary alcohol and a dash of spice is absolutely delicious.
It’s also an easy-to-down dessert-like drink, so it’s no wonder eggnog bowls have become a cliché fixture at office and family holiday parties. The fact that a similar drink was used as a flu remedy in medieval England might just be your next excuse to help yourself to another mug.