August 22, 2013

Case File #013.08.22: ZEPHYR

The word zephyr has been in the English lexicon since at least 1000, but the Anglo-Saxons spelled it zefferus and used it to mean “a westerly wind.” It was derived from the Latin zephyrus, which meant “the west wind” and was itself derived from the Greek Zephyros (also transliterated as Zephuros). While the Greek, too, was sometimes used in reference to a westerly breeze, it was more commonly used as the name of a Greek god who was not only the personification of the west winds but also the god of springtime. Now, as you may have noticed, the contemporary English spelling looks more like that of the Latin and Greek than did the Old English, yet the form zephyr dates back no earlier than the late sixteenth century, having first appeared in George Chapman's initial translations of Homer's The Iliad. And like the current spelling, the word's now familiar and more general sense of “a gentle breeze” is also relatively new—Shakespeare used it first in the fourth act of his tragic play Cymbeline, which was written around 1609—as is the sense of “a lightweight fabric or article of clothing.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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