Q&A: Solstice and equinox

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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