estivation

“Happy estival season,” Laurence Senelick (Fletcher Professor of Oratory) said to me as we passed on a walkway between Professors Row and the library at Tufts University some score of years ago. He said it because he knew I would understand it – and he liked nicely turned words. (He still does; he still holds the same post, and while I am 20-some years older, he seems to be the same age as he was then.)

I did understand it, of course, but it was not until later that day – ah, esprit de l’escalier – that I formulated what I ought to have said in reply: “It is my estimation that there will be an estival festival followed by estivation.” Which was not mere assonance; there was a summer party coming up, followed by a duration of dormancy for much of campus life, to be disturbed by the return of students in the fall.

And here we are again. Today has been Labour Day (for the Americans reading: not u). Aina and I went for one last swim in the suddenly crowded Sunnyside pool before they pulled the plug at 5 pm (literally: as we walked past at 5:15 – after drinks and food at the boardwalk café – the level was already perceptibly down, though not so far that the lifeguards couldn’t throw each other in). It has been a swelter of a summer, one suited for sundry sultry activities and inactivities and not for excessive exertion. I have been besporting myself within the constraints of heat and humidity, and I have not written any books or otherwise launched my desk chair like a Goddard rocket. Well, the sun has set on that, and while technically summer persists until the equinox, I am awakening from my estivation. As it were.

What is estivation? You have likely figured it out – and, for that matter, you may have seen the word once or twice already this summer, as I have – but if you want clarity, it is the counterpoise to hibernation. Where hibernation is sleeping through the winter, estivation is sleeping (or being sluggish at least) through the summer. (No word on whether anything sleeps specifically through spring or fall, but by analogy that would be vernation and autumnation. However, vernation in current use refers to the inflorescence of spring; I guess everything is waking up then, even those things that take a nap once it gets hot.) But it is also used to refer to the slightly more wakeful thing that many humans do: pass the summer in torpor somewhere, or anyway retire to a place or go on vacation to place. Why say “We summer in Iqaluit” when you can say “We estivate in Anguilla”?

Estivation looks like a v-necked estimation, perhaps as done by Emilio Estevez. But whereas estimation is related to esteem, there is no word esteev (or esteeve). The verb is estivate, to match estimate. And, of course, the adjective is estival, which really is made to be used much more than it is – if millions of poetasters can rhyme June with moon, we ought to see more estival with festival. The Latin origin is æstivus, which is the attributive form of æstas, ‘summer’, which French polished down to été (don’t miss the relation between French hiver ‘winter’ and hibernate either). This means that æstivate is also an acceptable form of this word, especially in England – for the set who like not only encyclopædia but also anæmia, œstrogen, and diarrhœa.

Which would not include Laurence, by the way, since he’s American through and through (and besides, who really likes anæmia and diarrhœa?). But, Professor Senelick, should you happen on this lexico-gustatory peregrination: Happy autumnal season… Sleepers awake!

One response to “estivation

  1. While the word estivation has its origins in summer biologists use it to describe bears winter sleep. Bears do not hibernate, they estivate.

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