Mud season in Old English

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[This is a guest post by Pamela Crossley]

I was recently doing something with my old undergraduate major, Old English, and was reminded of the word Salmonath (Solmonath), which put me in mind of this old conversation on your blog:

"Mud season in Russia: Putin, Rasputin" (3/31/18)

So you’ll like this one. Like the others we were discussing before, the Anglo-Saxons referred to a mud season, specifically the “muddy month” of February — Salmonath or Solmonath. There has been a lot of confusion about exactly what Salmonath means. A passage in Bede has been interpreted as saying that he translated “Salmonath” as “cake month,” but I think the passage only means that people also called Salmonath “cake month.” Somebody else said it was “Sol” as in the sun, obviously silly. Virtually everybody eventually agrees it means “muddy month” but they don’t go any further with what this “Sal” or “Sol” is supposed to be. The most illuminating discussion I have now read is in Wedgwood, A Dictionary of English Etymology (1865), Vol III, pp. 25-256, which you can now read online. Turns out, this word is very well attested in other Germanic languages. It is only very distantly related, if at all, to “soil,” which comes to English from French; “soil”’s original meaning was place, spot, ground, that kind of thing. Solid.

Sol as in Solmonath is more closely related to our words “sully” (as in dirty up somebody’s reputation) or “sodden.” Not “sod” as a reference to a man, that has a distinct origin. But the words in German, Scandinavian and Dutch related to this have mostly been produced by elision of an orignal “d,” as in German sudeln/suddeln/söddeln, to daub, stain, spatter, muddy up. So “sodden” comes by one path, as something soaked, wetted, and “sully” as something stained by another, from these same roots. But Wedgwood suggests that Dutch dialects produced “smuddeln, smullen,” which had the same meaning, but which, having lost their “s,” as often happens, produced “mud, muddy, muddle” as well as French moiller, moil, maul.

So more linguistic wonders prompted by the universal human impulse to give a special name to this depressing and frustrating season of mud! It's curious that for the Anglo-Saxons it came in February —I presume that was after they went to England, and is also possibly a reflection of a slightly different climate in the 10th century. As you know, when we speak of “The Mud” here it doesn’t mean February, but something starting somewhere in March and extending to early May.



"Schlump season" (3/21/15)

"Spring mud" (11/25/18)


  1. Bathrobe said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 8:36 am

    Etymology Online gives 'sodden' as "soaked or softened in water," 1820, earlier "resembling something that has been boiled a long time" (1590s), originally "boiled" (c. 1300), from Old English soden "boiled," strong past participle of seoþan "to cook, boil" (see seethe).

    As a noun, 'sod' has the sense of "turf, slice of earth with grass on it," mid-15c., apparently from Middle Dutch sode "turf," or Middle Low German sode, both related to Old Frisian satha "sod," all of uncertain origin. Perhaps the notion is water saturation and the group is related to sog.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 9:08 am

    So many resonances: Dartmouth (where I went to college and where Pamela Kyle Crossley teaches) duck boards; feeling a little sloughy from the spring rains here in Swarthmore (where PKC learned Old English and where I live).

  3. Tony Spataro said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 9:28 am

    The first cognate that came to mind for me was French sale/salir, which relate expressly to uncleanliness.

    It seems that "sale" may have been borrowed from Middle Dutch as well, if this Wiktionary entry is correct:

    If true, it could help explain why that word was borrowed so easily into Middle English, if it had a consistent meaning in several languages. (I suppose we would need to establish dates for usage, and make sure we're talking about the "right" French and Dutch dialects i.e. those that contributed to English.)

  4. SlideSF said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 11:37 am

    Maybe the "cake" in Cake Month has less to do with what you bake than what the mud does on your boots, etc.

  5. John Shutt said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 1:01 pm

    My dead-tree OED (the "real" OED, not the modern thing) only traces "cake" in a non-food sense back to the 1500s. Not that absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 6:06 pm

    In my part of the U.S. (NYC suburbs) the public schools are generally closed for vacation for a full week in February starting with the Presidents' Day Monday (so usually the 3d full week in the month) and that period is informally yet commonly known as Mud Week, often treated as a time for families with children to travel to either a place where it's not muddy (either a skiing location where the snow has yet to melt or a warm-beach location where there's never any snow to have melted). Perhaps the local climate is much like that of Dark Age Wessex or Mercia, so we have recreated the same notion even having lost the relevant OE morpheme?

  7. DaveK said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 6:15 pm

    Since Ash Wednesday usually falls in February, could “cake month” refer to some kind of pre-Lent holiday, like Shrove Tuesday pancakes?

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 6:51 pm

    Continuing with etymonline, there are apparently two sources of 'soil'. One (earth) is related to 'solid', the other (filth) related to 'sully' – all from French with no hint of a Germanic origin. The native 'sodden' (which didn't relate to mud at the time anyway) can't explain the 'l', so this proposed etymology is at least incomplete.

    I am not doubting that 'mud month' was the meaning, though.

    k_over_hbarc at

  9. Monscampus said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 1:51 am

    It made me think of what German pigs are won't to do, sich im Schlamm *suhlen*, albeit throughout the year. Wallow in the mud. And this was Grimm's take on it,
    So *sol* is Old High German meaning *a pool of faeces* and *sullen* a variant of suhlen that I never came across.

  10. Monscampus said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 1:53 am

    Sorry, wont, not won't!

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