A Germanic winter

Translated by Olivier van Renswoude from his original Dutch piece.

Of all the branches on the Indo-European language tree, the Germanic branch is the only one which has its own word for the cold season. Whereas the others have a form of the old hei-m-, like Greek kheîma ‘winter, winter-weather, storm’, Old Irish gaim ‘winter’ and Old Indic himá- ‘frost, snow, winter’ (also in Himālaya), the Germanic languages all use a form of winter. What is going on here? Where did it come from? Presented here is a fresh new look at a peculiar word.

Inflections of Proto-Indo-European hei-m- have also been preserved in Germanic, notably Old Norse gø, gói ‘late winter’ and latinised (and corrupted) Old Dutch ingimus and tuigimus, as words for animals that have survived respectively one and two winters. Compare dialectal Dutch enter and twenter, contractions of eenwinter and tweewinter.

Etymologists have at least been able to determine that winter probably had the form *wintruz in Old Germanic. This in turn was either taken from the language that was spoken in these parts before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, almost 5000 years ago, or coined by that specific group of Indo-Europeans who would later develop into the Germanic peoples, perhaps in a poetic context. In the first case the word will always remain a mystery, since we know next to nothing about that language, except that it may have been related to Basque. In the second case we can at least see if we can find potential cognates in Germanic or Indo-European in general.

Since the word was present in all Germanic languages and thus also in Old Germanic, we can be sure that the word already existed before the sound shifts which typify Germanic. That is to say, *wintruz must have been the continuation of older, pre-Germanic *uindrus or else *uendrus, since *-in- can also have developed from *-en- in closed syllables, as is the case with *bindaną ‘to bind’ from older *bhendh-e-.

Under the assumption of a pre-form *uindrus it has been connected with *uindos, the supposed precursor to the word for ‘white’ in the Celtic languages, like Gaulish vindus, Old Irish find and Middle Welsh gwynn. It would entail that our ancestors named the cold season after the whiteness of snow. That does not seem too far-fetched and might even make sense, but such a designation would be unusual upon closer inspection. It might therefore be better to assume that the meaning ‘white’ developed from ‘snowy’. More problematic, however, is that the Celtic word itself is of unknown, possibly non-Indo-European origin. After all, a rule of thumb in etymology is that an obscure word is not interpreted by appealing to an equally obscure word.

A safer bet in that regard is the popular notion that the older form was *uendrus, and that like *uodr ‘water’ the word was derived from the old verb *ued- ‘to be or make moist’, of which the present was originally conjugated with a nasal infix: *u-n(é)-d-, attested as Old Indic unátti ‘(he) moistens’. But even though this is formally possible, it very much remains a question whether this season would be named after its wetness. Snow, hail, ice and cold especially are more obvious characteristics of winter.

For a new, hopefully better etymology we first need to analyse the word differently. In the past, it was invariably taken to be *uind-ru-s or *uend-ru-s (with *-s as the nominative ending), as *-ru- and not *-dru- is a suffix known from other derivations. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the root was *uind- or *uend-. The *-d- here might also have developed as a so-called epenthetic consonant, such as the one known from the development of English thunder from older thuner. That is to say, it is possible that *uindrus or *uendrus was the natural, automatic pronunciation of a derivation *uin-ru-s or *uen-ru-s. In a similar fashion Old Germanic *ampraz ‘bitter, sharp’ developed, through pre-Germanic *ombros, from the original *Hom-ro-s.

If this analysis is correct there is only one known root worthy of consideration, albeit one that became rare rather early, namely Proto-Indo-European *(h1)uen-. This has been attested in verbal form in several old Iranian and thus related languages: Old Persan a-vaniya ‘was poured, strewn out’, Avestan ni-uuānəṇti ‘to hide or cover from above’ and Khwarezmian b’-wñ- ‘to cover’. It would mean that *uenrus as a precursor to winter once arose from the notion of snow being strewn from the sky, covering the land with a white blanket.

The same root is also taken to underlie some words concerning winnowing, i.e. the pouring and/or throwing of threshed grain so that the chaff, which is lighter, is blown away by the wind. Of note are Greek haínō ‘winnow’, Latin vannus ‘id.’ (borrowed als fan) and Old Germanic *windwō (Old High German winta ‘winnowing shovel’) and its derivation *windwōjaną (Old English windwian, English to winnow, West Flemish winden ‘to winnow’). Understandably, *windwō has previously been regarded as a derivation of *windaz ‘wind, breeze’, but this is to be rejected, since the suffix *-wō was otherwise not used to derive a noun from another noun. Therefore we are rather dealing with a derivation of the aforementioned verbal root, with the same suffix *-dwō as in for instance *mēdwō ‘meadow’ beside *mēaną ‘to mow’.

We may even consider that the immediate ancestors of the Germanic peoples, possibly the bards who sang their songs, used *uenrus specifically to describe the heavenly winnowing of winter. In some languages such connections still exist. Think of English winnowing snow or Serbo-Croatian vȉjati, which, although not related to our word, means both ‘to winnow’ and ‘to snow heavily’.


Derksen, R., Etymological Dictionary of the Slavic Inherited Lexicon (Leiden, 2008)

Krahe, H. & W. Meid, Germanische Sprachwissenschaft: III Wortbildungslehre (Berlijn, 1969)

Kroonen, G., Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Leiden, 2013)

Kümmel, M. e.a., Addenda und Corrigenda zum Lexikon der indogermanische Verben (2015)

Rix, H. e.a., Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben, 2. Auflage (Wiesbaden, 2001)

Vaan, M. de, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages (Leiden, 2008)

Wodtko, D. e.a., Nomina im Indogermanischen Lexikon (Heidelberg, 2008)

Ziegler, S., “Uridg. *uenh1 ‘(hin)schütten, ausbreiten’” in Historische Sprachforschung 117, 1 (2004), blz. 1-12

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