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.


  1. Some older dictionaries seem to make the leap that gossamer is connected with Latin gossipinus, gossipium or it’s a corruption of “gaze à Marie”?

  2. Growing up in Connecticut, we called (and I still call) the late autumn heat “Indian summer”

  3. wintersweet says

    Easily one of my favorite ridiculous fairy tale/Victorian novel words when I was a bookworm of a kid! How fun to read about its etymology.

  4. This post reminded me a Japanese diary from the Heian period translated under the title “The Gossamer Years”. The Japanese name was 蜻蛉日記 (Kagerō Nikki). Looking up kagerō, I stumbled into some confusion.
    Kagerō when written 蜻蛉 is a general name for dragonflies and mayflies. Kagerō is also the title of Chapter 52 in the “Tale of Genji”, where it is translated as “Drake Fly” and “Mayfly” in Seidensticker and Tyler respectively. I have no idea why the “Kagerō Nikki” is called that in Japanese, but judging from the characters used, it could have been more accurately translated as “The Mayfly Diary”.
    Kagerō when written 陽炎 means ‘heat haze’ (such as the shimmering heat above a bitumen or asphalt road). Perhaps it is this alternative meaning that inspired Seidensticker to choose “The Gossamer Years” as the translated title.

  5. Interesting. One of the theories about the Russian phrase babye leto — what I too call Indian summer — is that the spider webs that appear in warm fall weather are reminiscent of the fine threads of gray in the hair of old women.

  6. Victor Sonkin says

    @mab: the OED entry makes it more plausible that it’s a regular German borrowing.
    (Oh, I just remembered a fabulous first sentence from a historical Russia-themed novel picked up at random from a shelf in a London bookstore, something that went like “It was the time Russians call zhenshina lieta…”)

  7. Lyall Watson wrote a lovely passage in Heaven’s Breath (A Natural History of the Wind) describing how spiders parachute upward from ground level, catching a breeze with newly spun filaments.

  8. That sounds like a good book.

  9. “Dragonflies and mayflies” aren’t an intelligible category, except that they both have shimmery wings. So that’s probably how the collective word works.
    The difference is that dragonflies eat everything and mayflies eat nothing. Mayflies just lay their eggs and die.

  10. For example. But the photos don’t quite catch it.

  11. j. del col says

    Gossamer is also the name of a vast hairy monster created by the late, great Chuck Jones.

  12. j. del col says

    And we mustn’t forget Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Just One of Those Things,” “…a trip to the moon on gossamer wings.”

  13. “Diaphanous” was the word I was looking for.

  14. diaphanous: 1610s, from M.L. diaphanus, from Gk. diaphanes, from dia- “through” + phainesthai, middle voice form (subject acting on itself) of phainein “to show” (see phantasm).

  15. I believe gossamer was chosen by Seidensticker as a translation of sense and effect. The mayfly famously lives for but a day after emerging from its cocoon, and thus serves as a poignant symbol of the brief, vanishing nature of life. Famously, that is, in Japanese poetics. But not so much in the English speaking west, at least, where the fragility and evanescence of existence is probably better conveyed by something like … “gossamer”.
    It’s a translation I’ve always admired, though I’m not sure it works without explanation.

  16. Bartleby online has “mayfly” as a word expressing transience, and I vaguely remember hearing it used that way in poetry.
    In my actual experience mayflies are more an image of messiness, because around here they come in large numbers and the cadavers pile up.

  17. “Ephemera danica” in turn is scientific name of the mayfly, and they can be referred to as ephemerids. But “ephemerids / ephemerides” more often means a kind of astrological chart.

  18. The mayfly poems I’ve found are all 20th c., by MacNeice, Wilbur, and many less-known poets (plus Belle and Sebastian). Shelley’s elegy for Keats has
    “He sets, and each ephemeral insect then
    Is gathered into death without a dawn,”.
    Tennyson’s “Maud” has
    “For nature is one with rapine, a harm no preacher can heal;
    The Mayfly is torn by the swallow, the sparrow spear`d by the shrike,
    And the whole little wood where I sit is a world of plunder and prey.
    Before that mayflies seem to be thought of as fishbait, following Izaak Walton.

  19. From “Colosseum,” by Katie Ford:
    In the book on the ancient mayfly
    which lives only four hundred minutes
    and is, for this reason, called ephemeral,
    I couldn’t understand why the veins laid across
    the transparent sheets of wings, impossibly
    fragile, weren’t blown through in their half-day
    of flight. Or how that design has carried the species
    through antiquity with collapsing
    horses, hail-storms and diffracted confusions of light.

  20. (Note that the word “hail-storms” in the last line should not have a hyphen, but I was told I couldn’t post the unhyphenated word due to “questionable content.” I thought, “Why did I put that word on the MT-Blacklist?” and went to delete it, but it wasn’t there. I think MT hates me.)

  21. Software hates the world, Hat. Software has a bad day almost every day. Even if it starts out happy, once it grows up it becomes hateful. Look at Firefox.

  22. komfo,amonan says

    But “ephemerids / ephemerides” more often means a kind of astrological chart.

    Umm, singular “ephemeris”, plural “ephemerides”.

  23. “Ephemerids” is also used for the plural. “Ephemerid” is the insect singular, “ephemeris” is the astrological singular. This is one of those English-not-Latin/Greek problems, I suppose.
    Based on Google “ephemerid” seems to refer mostly the genus and not to an individual member of the genus, sort of the way we would not say “A canine walked into the room” for “A dog walked into the room”. In the only plural I found referring to insects, “ephemerids” seems mostly to mean “the various species of the genus ephemerid” just as “canines” means “various species of dog.”
    “Ephemeris + mayfly” gets about 40% the hits that “ephemerid + mayfly” gets.

  24. we call it aalzny shuls – spider’s saliva
    or aalzny tor which is just spiders’ web

  25. Ephemeris is also still used in astronomy, meaning essentially the same thing as it does in astrology, but with actual science involved.

  26. Don’t anthropomorphise software, that tends to release its authors from responsibility for their creation.

  27. “Gossamer” is also the brandname for a range of Durex condoms in the UK also I remember old fashioned packing material was called “gossamer” before the advent of nasty polystyrene beads and moulded unit to protect products in their packaging which is then discarded and takes 500 years to biodegrade.

  28. How delightful, I hadn’t known that Mädchen- and Altweibersommer could refer to those airy filaments. They’re also called Marienseide (Mary’s silk) or Mariengarn (Mary’s thread). Too bad that Eels’s gaze à Marie seems to be made up.
    Another equivalent I found in Grimm was Mechtildesommer. Who she ? There are ‘leventy zillion Mechthilds in Germany’s past.

  29. “Gossamer” is also the brandname for a range of Durex condoms in the UK
    That doesn’t sound like a very robust product. To me it also suggests spermatozoa floating around in the air, and sticking to the face in that annoying way they have – the spider spit, I mean.

  30. Erm… is there something you wish to confess Stu?

  31. All software is ultimately the evil creature of the evil programmer, Angra Mainyu.
    The main thing to remember is EVIL. The creator is EVIL, the creature is EVIL, EVIL! EVIL! EVIL!
    There are free will questions involved, but the comment box is too small for me to explain them.

  32. Erm… is there something you wish to confess Stu?
    Yes indeed: I wish I had written “spider spittlements”, but that occurred to me only as I was already down the stairs and out the door.

  33. All software is ultimately the evil creature of the evil programmer, Angra Mainyu.
    John, you might consider software as being like sex. It is exciting for a while, but as the years go by it gets more and more complicated, and at last it just doesn’t work like it used to. Also, like a gossamer condom, it tends to break right when you need it most.

  34. I have never found software exciting. I like it OK when it’s imperceptible and the interface is easy. The minute I notice the software at all I see the loathsome face of Angra Mainyu.

  35. You seem to have a fairly Victorian attitude about it.

  36. If by “Victorian” you mean “Zoroastrian.”

  37. @Stu – would that be esprit de l’escalier spider spittlements?

  38. @Stu – would that be esprit de l’escalier spider spittlements?
    If by “Victorian” you mean “Zoroastrian.”
    ?? Where does Zorro come into this ? <* scours comment thread for clue, consults WiPe on the off chance *> Ah, a foreign debbil. I had thought “Angra Mainyu” was like the name of a character in a novel, encoded with significance: “angry man, you !”.

  39. Angra Mainyu is ancestral to Plato’s Demiurge, but is more unmistakably evil. He programs the evil programmers who program the evil programs.

  40. The devil of the New Religion is just the god of the Old Religion. I suspect that old Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, if you prefer, is getting a bum rap here.
    Wonder if this is the same ar-Rahman of the Koran.
    For divine protection from evil programmmers, I personally would turn to [the Discordian version of] Eris.

  41. All the things I don’t know about mayflies could fill more than a day, it seems.
    Still, “The Mayfly Diary” seems the more unfortunate title. And the choice of gossamer, inspired.

  42. j. del col says

    Ummm… spider’s spit?
    It issues from the nether end, and no, it is isn’t excrement.
    Spider silk costs the the little blighters a lot of energy and nutrients, so it often gets recycled by being eaten when it has served its purpose.
    BTW, there’s a very fine book–Arachnids–that goes into lengthy detail about all this.
    Anyone who has read –Charlotte’s Web– knows about ballooning spiders.

  43. j. del col: Ummm… spider’s spit? It issues from the nether end, and no, it is isn’t excrement.
    “spider’s spit” and the rest of it were just my little riffs on read’s remark that Marienseide is called that in her native language, which I think is Mongolian:

    we call it aalzny shuls – spider’s saliva
    or aalzny tor which is just spiders’ web

  44. j. del col says

    Thufferin’ Thuccotash!
    See his autobiographies,–Chuck Amuck and –Chuck Reducks– for details. Also—-Hugh Kenner’s –Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings.–

  45. marie-lucie says

    They’re also called Marienseide (Mary’s silk) or Mariengarn (Mary’s thread).
    In French these are called fils de la Vierge “the (Holy) Virgin’s threads”.
    (This is les fils, plural of le fil “thread”, and thus ending in the sound l, not les fils, plural of le fils “son”, pronounced [fis]).

  46. Siganus Sutor says

    “Gossamer” is also the brandname for a range of Durex condoms in the UK
    It’s funnier when one starts to think of it in relation with the words “gosse amer” (sour child).

  47. Or a “testicle” if you’re in the French speaking areas of Canada?

  48. Calembours de mes deux ?

  49. Wee, wee!

  50. Bathrobe says

    In French these are called fils de la Vierge “the (Holy) Virgin’s threads”.
    Is this the same as cheveux d’ange?

  51. Bathrobe says

    Or fil Notre-Dame

  52. Bathrobe says

    Plus LOTS of German synonyms here:

  53. That should be Why, why! (Ouai, ouai!) in French Canada –Non, m-l?
    In archives, ephemera are single-sheet, single-use publications, such as hand-bills, song-sheets, etc.

  54. Bathrobe says

    The newsletter of the Arachnological Society of Japan is called “遊絲” (yūshi), i.e., gossamer. 遊 has a number of meanings, but here means something like wandering around, sauntering around, or travelling around (for pleasure). 絲 means ‘thread’ or ‘filament’.

  55. Siganus Sutor says

    Mais oui, Eel, it’s true that for people from Québec “les gosses” can be the bollocks. Would then “gosse amer” have anything to do with bitter melon ?

  56. marie-lucie says

    Bathrobe, les fils de la Vierge are not at all the same as les cheveux d’ange which are the long shiny threads you can drape over the Christmas tree. I don’t know but it would be the same idea (probably an older form too, as shown by the absence of de).
    Iakon, ouais does not sound like why.

  57. Siganus Sutor says

    Marie-Lucie, the “cheveux d’ange” are also a very fine type of pasta called capellini or capelli d’angelo in Italian.

  58. marie-lucie says

    Merci, Siganus. I think I have seen packages of capelli d’angelo, but personally I prefer pasta of a more solid consistency, so I ignore the superfine ones. Of course, the hair of mere angels is not nearly as fine as the Virgin Mary’s threads.

  59. Angelhair is applied in English to both the pasta and the decoration.

  60. But I wonder who it was who decided that it ought to be written as one word? It makes some sense, no one would want hairy pasta from other sources.

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