Throwback Thursday: Word Histories


Gossamer   In late autumn when the year is moving along in an orderly manner toward winter, the weather often turns quite suddenly, but temporarily, around. In America a warm spell late in the year is usually called Indian summer. The American term is now common in England, but older names like Saint Martin’s summer (Saint Martin’s Day is November 11) and Saint Luke’s summer (Saint Luke’s Day is October 8) are still current there. It is likely that England once had still another word for this season: gossomer (Middle English gos, ‘goose’, and somer, ‘summer’). Much writing of the Middle English period has not survived the passage of the centuries, and it happens that in what we do have the word gossomer is not attested in that sense. But we have a clue from German, where we find similar words. The German Gänsemonat, ‘goose-month’, was November, when the geese were at their best for eating. Two other German words for Indian summer, Altweibsommer, ‘Old Wives’ summer’ (Old Wives’ summer is also occasionally used for Indian summer in English), and Mädchensommer, ‘Maidens’ summer’, are also names used, as Middle English gossomer was, for the cobweb film that floats in the warm autumn air. This cobweb film is also known by the dialectal term summer-goose in northern England. This is apparently an inversion based on the likeness (admittedly slight) of a downy cobweb to a goose’s down. [ME gossomer (prob. also ‘Indian summer’, the period when geese were eaten extensively), prob. fr. gos, goos goose + somer summer; fr. its prevalence at this season of the year]

Merriam-Webster Inc. (2011-09-20). Merriam-Webster’s Book of Word Histories (Kindle Locations 7133-7145). Merriam-Webster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.



photo credit: <a href=””>Matito</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

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