Long Days

Sigh, long days. With the social distancing and quarantines that we experience during this pandemic, the days do seem to get long. For some, this is a welcomed opportunity to catch up on put-off projects or cleaning, for others it seems like there is little to do except clean up the hair all over the floor that you tore out. I just got an email with some clever quips about the current situation. “I wonder if God got so mad about all of our fighting down here that He sent us to our rooms?” or “This is the day dogs have been waiting for. They realize their owners can’t leave the house and they get them 24/7. Dogs are rejoicing everywhere. Cats are contemplating suicide,” or maybe the one that sums it up best – “The truth is, it’s not so boring at home. But it’s interesting that one bag of rice has 7,456 grains and another has 7,489.”

In the midst of this season, some are also experiencing the season of Lent. Lent is the 40 day period in which the church reflects on the time before the death and resurrection of Christ. So recently, I discovered that the word Lent comes from “lencten”,  the Anglo Saxon or Old English term for “long days.” We get the word “lengthen” from it. The Anglo Saxons didn’t have clocks. They observed the obvious. The sun rose earlier and set later in the spring of the year. According to Bede, 8th century historian and scholar, and later Aelfric, Anglo Saxon prose writer, the Anglo Saxons had four seasons: lencten or lenctentid was spring or spring time, sumor was summer, hærfest  was harvest or autumn, and winter remained our word winter. Bede wrote that winter was over for the Anglo Saxon on February 7. On February 7, 2020, the London sunrise was 7:29 am and sunset was 5:01 pm. That doesn’t seem like a real long day. Now, April 1 is a different story. Sunrise was at 6:35 am and sunset at 7:34 pm.  So with 13 hours of light, you could call April 1 a truly long day. So what did these early English speakers do with their “lencten”?

A typical Anglo Saxon’s spring workday would consist of feeding the animals, planting, plowing, and of course eating, all of which needed daylight. There was plenty to keep these people busy attaining their yearly goal of a good harvest. April was called Eostremonath or Eostre month. Eostre, according to Bede, was a pagan goddess of rebirth. Her image is associated with Hares and Eggs, both symbols of new life. The name probably stems from the Germanic Ostara,  from the Greek goddess of dawn, Eos, and ultimately, from a Proto-Indo-European goddess of dawn.

You may have noticed that the name of this goddess sounds an awful lot like Easter. Well, the Christian missionaries didn’t want to abolish all pagan traditions as they shared their new ideas, so they translated the new birth of the earth in the celebration of the spring season into the message of the death and resurrection of Christ. The church kept the pagan name “Easter” for the Sunday celebration. And somehow the little pagan bunnies and eggs of the Eostre celebration, also survived.

After the darkness and cold of winter, April was considered the apex of new life. Not only did the Anglo Saxon peasant have the joy of increased sunlight, but animals usually gave birth at this time. With the warmer days and the first flowers blooming, April has always signaled that the world is changing for the better. Easter is often in April. Scholars have proven through historical record, geological research, and the computer studies of the ancient positions of stars, that Jesus Christ was indeed crucified on April 3, 33 A.D.

So celebrate April! Celebrate the looooong days. Celebrate the light! Things could be worse. You could be an Anglo Saxon with no electricity. Then you would really be enjoying the “lenctenid.”







Click to access lent.pdf




The Journey Begins

Say what?

A short journey into the history of English…

Hey, what was that you said?

Have you ever wondered, as an English speaker, why you say the words you do? Most people never give it a thought. The words they use are just taken for granted as useful tools for everyday communication. There’s no interest in where these words came from, right?

I say wrong. DNA testing for ancestors is a very hot topic today, and I’m willing to bet that people will not only want to know where they came from, but where their words came from as well. And so I begin this blog.

Influence on Language

If you speak Icelandic, Spanish, or Finnish you are generally using the same words which have been spoken for centuries. You’d say these languages are conservative. Especially if a country is isolated, there is less opportunity for new influences on the language from non native speakers.

But what about English? The roots of the English language are deep and wide and the results are a unique, linguistic flowering, largely due to the influence of invaders. Take a look at England. It’s hardly isolated. In fact, the British Isles have been a target for invaders for thousands of years. Every invader, and eventually settler, contributed to the evolution of the English language.

Anglo Saxon Influence

“But what does this have to do with me?” you may ask. Well, what if you were to say, “Let’s go to your house. I need to get something to eat.” You would be speaking an evolved version of pure Old English, the speech of the Anglo Saxons. Every word in those sentences is from them. Their words are the “meat and potatoes” words, the words that glue our language together. The Anglo Saxons were Germanic raiders that acted and looked a lot like their more famous cousins, the Vikings. They found the island with it’s doors wide open as early as 450 A.D. and walked right in.


And speaking of the Vikings, after plundering the British Isles, they eventually settled down and shared their language, Old Norse. If you wanted to choose some words spoken by that tough bunch of dudes, you might say, “Tuesday and Thursday I want to ransack the loft for that skirt!” They showed up in earnest in “Angleland” about 800 A. D.

Norman French

After the second millennium rolled around, we had another batch of bad boys take over and bring their words with them. In 1066, William the Conqueror from Normandy battled Harold and the Anglo Saxon lords at the Battle of Hastings. After they dispatched Harold with an arrow through the eye, they set up their French government and eventually influenced the way their English subjects spoke. Now, remember you wanted to eat at your friend’s house before? Let’s suppose you’re still hungry but don’t want to go to your friend’s house after all. You’ve found out that all he’s got is three day old cheese sticks. You might say, “Let’s rendezvous at the restaurant. I’m famished!” Well, most of that is basically Frenchified Anglo Saxon, which soon after the Norman French takeover would have been dubbed – Middle English.

As English speakers, we have a rich treasure of words at our beck and call. Mmm… and where does that fun, little phrase come from? Stay tuned… there’s another English expression which bears looking into! We will explore more secrets of the English language in upcoming posts.

Mary Atwood, May 2018