Q&A: Solstice and equinox

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we're discussing everything under the sun…

Q: Hi AWC – can you explain the term “equinox” for me please? For example, is the shortest day of the year the winter equinox?

A: No – the shortest and longest days are termed the winter and summer “solstice” – not the equinox.

Q: “Sol” means “sun”, yeah?

A: That’s right, and the “stice” part is from Latin meaning “stationary”.

Q: You mean like envelopes and notebooks?

A: No, that’s “stationEry” – E for envelope!

Q: That’s a good tip. So it means the sun standing still then?

A: Yes. In winter, the “solstice” is when the sun is at the lowest point in the sky. In summer, it’s the highest point.

Q: So back to “equinox” then – what is that?

A: The clue is in the meaning.

Q: Well, to me it sounds like a type of horse medicine. “Feeling a little horse? Try equinox!”

A: Haha, yes it does sound a bit like that.

Q: “Long in the face? Try equinox!”

A: Uh huh.

Q: “Keen to get back in the saddle? Try equinox!”

A: Okay.

Q: “Equinox – helping you feel more stable!”

A: You can stop now.

Q: Okay. So, I’m guessing it’s nothing to do with horses then?

A: Correct. We get “equine” (horse-related) from Latin “equus” and later “equinus”. However, “equinox” instead gets its origins from a different Latin word – “aequi” (equal) combined with “nox” (night).

Q: Equal night?

A: That’s it. Because Earth is on a tilt, we get seasons. At the winter solstice (the shortest day), the day is much shorter than night, and vice versa for summer.

Q: Okay.

A: However, twice a year as Earth is transitioning from winter to summer in each hemisphere, there’s a time when day and night are of equal length – the spring and autumn equinox!

Q: Are these on set dates?

A: In the Southern Hemisphere the spring equinox is around 22 September and autumn equinox is around 20 March.

Q: Earlier you wrote “Earth” – is it always a capital?

A: If you’re referring to the actual planet, always use a capital. However, the ground in general or any other meaning (i.e. to earth a current) won’t need a capital. And if it has “the” in front of it, you’ll often leave it lowercase – such as “four corners of the earth”.

Q: And why do we call it “autumn”?

A: Everyone actually used to call that season “harvest”, but around the 1500s – two new terms had emerged – “autumn” and “fall”…

Q: And America clearly went with “fall”?

A: Yes – often considered superior in that it matches “spring” in relation to leaves. But Britain stuck with the word “autumn” – a word with foggy origins but also meaning to fall.

Q: What about the adjective “autumnal”?

A: That’s used universally by everyone.

Q: Phew – today felt more like a science lesson than an English lesson.

A: Yes it did.

Q: I could do with a dose of equinox right now…

A: The ultimate “night and day” remedy!

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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