The Creative Exploration of Language


Harvest doesn’t resemble any other words that I know, which made me curious about its origins. As it turns out, it comes from the Old English word hærfest.

I did a quick comparison to other languages and made some interesting connections. Harvest is cognate with the German word herbst and the Dutch word herfst, both of which mean “autumn.” While this is interesting, it doesn’t reveal much about the ultimate meaning of the word. It seems clear that the English word originally meant “autumn” as well but over time came to connote the activity that occurred in autumn, harvesting crops.

After digging a bit deeper back in time, I found that the word comes from the Proto-Germanic word *harbistaz (the * indicates that a word has been reconstructed by linguistic analysis rather than attested in a historical text). This, in turn, goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *kerp which means “to pick” or “to pluck.”

So, the harvest or autumn season is a time for the picking or plucking of crops and fruit (karpós in Greek). This all makes perfect sense linguistically once you account for the sound changes that occurred in the Germanic languages.

Finally, it makes me think that the Latin phrase carpe diem might be better translated as “pluck the day” rather than “sieze the day.” While the latter seems violent and rough, the former brings up a joyful image of picking something whose time has come, like ripe fruit.

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