In a recent post, Anatoly discusses his occasional reluctance to look up English words he doesn’t know, preferring to deduce their meaning from context, a habit which occasionally leads him astray. (This is not a problem for me; I obsessively look up words, fearful of missing a shade of meaning that’s important in context.) He says the actual meaning sometimes turns out to be a letdown, but this was not the case for the word gossamer. It is indeed a great word, and I wonder how many languages have a specific word for (in the OED’s definition) “A fine filmy substance, consisting of cobwebs, spun by small spiders, which is seen floating in the air in calm weather, esp. in autumn, or spread over a grassy surface”? The etymology is both straightforward (goose + summer) and mysterious: why “goose summer”? OED:
The reason for the appellation is somewhat obscure. It is usually assumed that goose in this compound refers to the ‘downy’ appearance of gossamer. But it is to be noted that G. mädchen-, altweibersommer mean not only ‘gossamer’, but also a summer-like period in late autumn, a St. Martin’s summer; that the obs. Sc. GO-SUMMER had the latter meaning; and that it is in the warm periods of autumn that gossamer is chiefly observed. These considerations suggest the possibility that the word may primarily have denoted a ‘St. Martin’s summer’ (the time when geese were supposed to be in season: cf. G. Gänsemonat ‘geese-month’, November), and have been hence transferred to the characteristic phenomenon of the period. On this view summer-goose (which by etymologizing perversion appears also as summer-gauze) would be a transposition.