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The Story of Summer and other Season Names

June 26, 2016 clevelandevans

We are particularly pleased to reprint this article by the distinguished name scholar, Cleveland Evans; it originally appeared on Omaha.com.

By Cleveland Evans

The weather bureau says summer starts June 1 — and temperatures in Omaha this June show they have a point. Astronomers say summer started when the sun reached its annual highest place in the sky at 5:34 p.m. Monday.

Summer” goes back millennia to “sem,” the word for summer in ancient Indo-European.  Though not as ancient, “winter” also goes back thousands of years, to a Germanic word which probably meant “wet season.”

Families called Winter or Winters had medieval ancestors nicknamed “Winter” because of a gloomy personality. Though many Summer or Summers families had ancestors who were summoners (who called people to court) or sumpters (drivers of packhorses), some descend from men with sunny dispositions.

In Old English, “lent” was the word for “spring.” The word spring developed around 1400, short for “season when new leaves spring up.”

“Harvest” came after summer until the 1500s, when “fall” (from falling leaves) and “autumn” (a French word from Latin, perhaps originally “dry season”) jointly replaced it.
When turning last names into first names became popular after 1750, Summer and Winter became boys names. The 1850 U.S. census, first to list all by name, included 421 Summers and 74 Winters, almost all male.

Perhaps inspired by the use of May and June, a few parents began to name girls after the seasons. The earliest sure census example of a woman Summer is Summer Wilbourn, born in South Carolina about 1835.

The earliest sure female Winter was Winter Dow Haley, born in Ohio in 1867 and living in Red Cloud, Nebraska, in 1900.

In 1900, Nebraska also had the earliest AutumnAutumn O’Neal, born in Iowa in 1879, lived with parents John and Caroline on Seward Street in Omaha.

Though Autumn was last created, it was the first seasonal name to show up in Social Security’s yearly baby name lists, which contain names given to five or more girls born since 1880. At least five Autumns have arrived almost every year since 1910. Perhaps the poetic quality of the word commended it to parents.

It wasn’t until 1949 that five Summers arrived. Then in 1951 there were seven Springs.
The Springs may have been inspired by Spring Byington. Born Spring Dell Byington in Denver in 1886, she’s actually the oldest American-born Spring in the census. After a long career as a character actress, Byington became a star in 1954 in the sitcom “December Bride” as Lily Ruskin, an older widow on the prowl for a new husband. “December Bride” was one of the 10 top-rated shows between 1954 and 1958.

In 1956 Spring was the first seasonal name to be given to more than a hundred girls — 104, to be precise. After “December Bride” was canceled, it quickly dropped. Autumn and Summer have generally been ahead of Spring since 1963.

In 1969 Autumn was the first to make the top thousand names, followed by Summer in 1971 and Spring in 1975. The much rarer Winter had a sudden boom that brought it into the top thousand in 1978 and 1979, when it actually beat Spring.

Many attribute the 1970s boom in season names to counterculture hippie parents giving kids “nature names.” Though Winter and Spring quickly faded back into obscurity after 1980, Autumn and Summer grew even more popular.

Summer peaked at 119th in 1977. It dropped to 286th in 1991, and then bounced back into the top 200 when Nicole Eggert played gorgeous lifeguard Summer Quinn on “Baywatch” between 1992 and 1994. Between 2003 and 2007, its popularity was helped by Summer Roberts (Rachel Bilson), the snarky rich girl with intellectual depth on the teen drama “The O.C.”

Autumn peaked at 180th in 1980. Then, as parents looked for alternatives to Aubrey and Audrey, it boomed again. In 1997 it was the first season name to crack the top 100. In 2015, the 4,101 Autumns born ranked it 67th.

Autumn achieved another milestone in 2008 when Canadian-born Autumn Kelly married Peter Phillips, Princess Anne’s son and Queen Elizabeth’s oldest grandchild, making it the first season name with royal cachet.

Perhaps because of Winter Frore, heroine of Obert Skye’s popular “Leven Thumps” fantasy series with magical deep-freeze powers, Winter returned to the top thousand in 2012. In 2015, 562 were born, ranking it 549th.

Only 21 Springs sprouted last year. I confidently predict, though, that one day Spring will bloom again as a baby name, too.

Cleveland Evans is a Bellevue University psychology professor and author of “The Great Big Book of Baby Names.”

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