Thaw with her gentle persuasion is more powerful than Thor with his hammer”

– Thoreau

…By which snee in the title, I mean ‘snow’, but I prefer the sound of  ‘snee’ (the word for ‘snow’  in Middle Dutch, so it seems.)

The part of England I’m living in just now is not used to such whiting and ice. But it brings lovely things, if also sadly, some tragedies. The hills are resonating with screams, yelps and laughter as snowball fights and snowmen-manufacture are interrupted by make-do sledging; the laughing bouncing off the walls of the houses below.

The melt began early, after several inches of snowfall overnight. As I explored this morning, I could hear the slow, inevitable drip, drip, of melting snow, and the beguiling bubbling of newly-formed brooks; surprising rustles as the little snow piles let go and branches rediscover their bounce.

The sound of the thaw is unique.  I know several of you reading have had Proper Snowfall in your parts of the world and are more used to it than we are here, but I hope you still notice that special sound of nature doing its thang.

It is a fine word, tho’, thaw, so indulge me a moment’s exploration. It’s an Old English verb, not surprisingly (þaw,  where the ‘þ’ is one of two signs for ‘th’) and it became an English noun in the early C15th.  Now, there’s an interesting (for me, at least) thing to spot here. English didn’t seem to need a word for “the thaw” until c1400. Why not?

Apparently, the south and central parts of England had a very favourable climate between the late C12th and late C13th. There was then a cooler period , until the late C15th, and during the early days of this time, ”thaw’ becomes a noun. This suggests to me (just a theory!) that  the thaw was itself a newly observable phenomenon – presumably quite a lengthy one, after a long, snowy winter – and this weather ‘event’ needed naming. In time, the thaw would have become one of spring’s first heralds, most likely, and in Chaucer’s age, would tell you to ready yourself for spring pilgrimage: (translated below, but look at this lovely Middle English, from the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales)

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth 5
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye, 10
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages:
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmers for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes

When that April with his showers fragrant
The dryness of March has pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such liquid
By which power engendered is the flower,
When Zephyrus also with his sweet breath
Inspired has in every woodland and heath
The tender crops, and the young sun
Hath in the Ram has his half course run
And small fowls make melody,
That sleep all the night with open eye
(So rises the nature in their hearts),
Then long [yearn] folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers [pilgrims who carried palm fronds] for to seek strange strands,
To far-off shrines, known in sundry lands….

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