Friday 25 March 2011

Aestivate and the Undead Lemur

All of a sudden, the winter has vanished. Or it has in London.

This is the time when hibernating creatures yawn, stretch and emerge from the hibernacles: a hibernacle being the place where you spent the winter. Hiber was* Latin for winter. Those Romans who visited Ireland decided that the weather there was so bloody awful that they would call the land Hibernia, which means winterland.

But there is an opposite of hibernation. All you need to do is take the hiber out, replace it with the Latin for summer, aestas, and you get aestivation. Aestiavating (sometime estivating) is the practice of going to sleep until it's autumn again. It's a rather tempting prospect, but the only mammal that does so is the Malagasy fat-tailed dwarf lemur, and I'd hate to be mistaken for one of them. In fact, I feel that whichever naturalist named the Malagasy fat-tailed dwarf lemur was probably in a malevolent mood at the time.

Oddly enough, I've already written one post on Malagasy lemurs. You wouldn't have thought it would be a subject that repeats on a blog about the English language. But lemurs are fascinating creatures. Lemur itself comes from the Latin lemures, which meant the malignant spirits of the unburied dead. You see, lemurs only come out at night and make very strange noises.

If attacked by an ancient Roman lemur you should offer it black beans to eat, or failing that bang brass pans together to frighten it away. This is the reason that in Goethe's Faust Mephistopholes summons up a terrifying troop of lemurs, which sing:

Wir treten dir sogleich zur Hand,
Und wie wir halb vernommen,
Es gilt wohl gar ein weites Land,
Das sollen wir bekommen.
Gespitzte Pfähle, die sind da,
Die Kette lang zum Messen;
Warum an uns den Ruf geschah,
Das haben wir vergessen.

Look, fat-tailed dwarf lemurs!

*I know, hiems, but I'm keeping it simple.


  1. Hence the saison estivale . Wonderful. I'm grateful to occasionally be able to put pieces together.

  2. I always wondered if Lemurs came from Lemuria.

  3. I've just hauled out my old school dictionary, and according to it hiber does not mean winter. It means Spaniard, or Iberian. The adjective hibernus does mean wintry, though, and there's the verb hibernare, to winter. So your argument still stands. And hiems does indeed mean winter, or storm.

  4. Interesting stuff, I'll be back for more