Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
The middle of June might seem like an odd time to write about something as winter-centric as hibernation, but as you will see, there is a flip side to hibernation that keeps the topic timely.
That word hibernation goes back to the Latin hibernationem, a noun of action from the verb hibernare “to pass the winter.” It’s related to the Latin word for winter, hiems. In the time of the Roman Empire, hibernation wasn’t limited to the season sleep of beasts; when temperatures dropped and snow started to fall, Roman armies would set up and occupy winter quarters — putting wars on hold until it warmed up. Hibernationem also described what these armies did, though they didn’t lower their metabolism, heart rate, and breathing rate and survive off their body fat the way hibernating animals do.
You might remember that Ireland was once widely known as Hibernia, which in Latin translates as “land of winter.” While that is true, it was a Roman name that came about because of colonization and culture clash, making it an exonym, a name for a place (or people or language) that was created and used by people from outside that place.
Before the Roman Empire reached north of (what is today called) the English Channel, Ireland was called, in the language of the island’s inhabitants, Old Celtic, something closer to Iveriu. This name appeared in Roman documents in other forms, too, such as Iverna and Ierne. The name was foreign to Latin speakers, of course, but because B sounds and V sounds often get transposed, it sounded approximately like a word meaning “land of winter,” and so that’s what they called it: Hibernia.
But that’s a tangent: Ireland isn’t the timely link I mentioned earlier.
Hibernation is nature’s coping mechanism for when water freezes and trees stop growing fruit and leaves and the frigid temperatures make simply walking outside a biologically risky endeavor.
But extreme cold isn’t the only reason food and water can become scarce and outside temperatures can become dangerous. In deserts and tropical areas, the heat of summer can dry up lakes and rivers and curb plant growth. When life in the desert gets tough in the summer, some animals will estivate — the summertime equivalent of hibernate — from the Latin word for summer, aestes. The desert tortoise, for example, will dig itself a burrow, climb down in, lower its metabolism, and live off its stored body fat until the temperatures become more agreeable and, presumably, food and water become available.
We’re still a week away from the first day of summer. You probably have big plans for the next few months — home repairs, art projects, personal enrichment, vacations. But if you’re anything like me, when the heat really ramps up in the middle of summer, you might feel the urge to just curl up in an air conditioned room and wait for the cooler temps of fall.
You’ll want to estivate. You shouldn’t, of course — the human body isn’t built for that — but do console yourself with the knowledge that somewhere out in some desert, a whole mess of hot, hungry animals knows exactly how you feel.
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