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Neither a Pontiac or a Chevy

I met someone yesterday who said I had a cool job — teaching Latin. That reaction is a little unusual. Though many people say how much they love Latin or make a positive but somewhat inaccurate remark, such as, “That’s the root of all languages!,” I occasionally pick up that “dead language” vibe, as in “Does anybody still speak that?”

For whatever reason, Latin teachers like me feel a little defensive. I believe that studying Latin, though not for everyone, is immeasurably valuable, but in ways that are hard to quantify or explain. Often, I feel, Latin provides a deeper way of understanding something about the world.

This example occurred to me last month. March 20th is the vernal equinox, a term which I explained to my Latin 102 class. Equinox is a compound word meaning “equal night.” It’s the 24-hour period divided equally between sunlight and darkness, and from then on the days begin to get longer. Vernal comes from ver, the Latin word for spring and also for green.

Autumnal equinox has a similar root; autumnus, of course, is Latin for autumn. A little research tells me that new terms — March and September equinox — are gaining ground, because the seasonal terms are prejudiced in favor of the Northern Hemisphere.

Anyway, this discussion leads naturally to two other dates in the calendar: the summer and winter solstice. (June solstice and December solstice are the more politically correct terms.) These are, respectively, the longest and shortest days of the year. Solstice combines the Latin words for sun and stand still. These days mark the time the sun is at its northernmost and southernmost points. At these points, it appears to stop and change direction.

I can recall getting all these terms and days of the year mixed up until I understood the etymology of the words. Understanding the Latin root words has that practical outcome. Besides, it’s just cool that the Latin uses the same words for spring and green and that our scientific, Latinate word solstice preserves an ancient observation that twice a year the sun actually stops in the sky.

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