Martha tries to unravel the tangled etymological web that connects gossamer, spiders, geese, and warm weather in a late autumn.
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It’s a warm day in late autumn. You’re out for a stroll in the country. If the air is still, and the sun is at just the right angle, you may see the glint of spider threads floating lazily in the air. Particularly at this time of year, some tiny spiders use an odd way to travel: They shoot out threads of their own silk, and then hitch a ride on the breeze. Entomologists call this technique “ballooning.” Walt Whitman described it in a poem, writing of a “noiseless patient spider” launching forth “filament, filament, filament, out of itself. / Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them….”
And the word for these silky threads? “gossamer.”
It’s a beautiful word, gossamer–almost sounds like itself, doesn’t it? This term’s meaning has come to extend to anything “flimsy, insubstantial, or gauzy.” .” Cole Porter sang of “a trip to the moon on gossamer wings.” And Charlotte Bronte wrote of “a gossamer happiness hanging in the air.”
So how did spider silk ever get the name “gossamer”?
It seems the spider’s filaments take their name from an old word for late autumn. In this country, that period is often called “Indian Summer.” But in Britain, the same period was long known as “St. Martin’s summer,” a reference to Martin’s feast day, November 11. Centuries ago, though, speakers of Middle English referred to this period as “gosesomer”–a name that means “goose summer.”
Why the goose in goose summer? That’s where things get a little hazy. The most likely explanation is that early November traditionally was the time when people feasted on fattened geese. In fact, an old German word for November literally translates as “geese month.”
The name for this warm period, goosesummer, was later applied to the phenomenon that country folk observed at that time of year, those silky, gossamer threads floating in the autumn air.
It seems that over the years, just like those tiny spiders, the word “gossamer” has drifted a long way.
For more about gossamer, including Henry David Thoreau’s fascination with it, check out Beneath the Second Sun: A Cultural History of Indian Summer, by Adam W. Sweeting.