daffodilsToday marks the vernal equinox. The event that ought to herald spring, despite the less than springlike weather Britain has been enjoying recently.

So what is an equinox, and why is this one vernal?

Vernal equinox sounds like double dutch. Actually, it’s double—or even triple—Latin.

An equinox, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, is:

One of the two periods in the year when the days and nights are equal in length all over the earth, owing to the sun’s crossing the equator.

The -nox part comes from the Latin for “night”. If you go back far enough in the mists of time, night and nox are related. From nox we get several English words, but the only ones you’re likely to encounter are nocturnal, musical or pictorial nocturnes, and, just possibly, noctambulism, aka sleepwalking.

The equi- part is from the same Latin word æquus “equal” which has given us equidistant, equitable, and equity.

What about the vernal bit?

Think of Botticelli’s world-famous image: La Primavera. spring_bottic

Primavera means literally “first spring”. The -vera part comes from the Latin word for spring, ver.

From it also derives vernal, meaning “of or relating to the spring”. But it’s not a word you’ll come across often outside literature.

As thick as bees o’er vernal blossoms fly.

Pope

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