Thursday, February 14, 2008


A sweet Valentine's Day column from a most unlikely suspect.

"Valentine" meaning "sweetheart chosen on St. Valentine's Day" has been a word in English since c.1450. Choosing a sweetheart on this day originated in the 14th century as a custom in English and French court circles. The romantic association of the day is said to be from it being around the time when birds choose their mates.

"For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd cometh there to chese his make."

[Chaucer, "Parlement of Foules," c.1381]

Probably the date was the informal first day of spring in whatever French region invented the custom (many surviving medieval calendars reckon the start of spring on the 7th or 22nd of February, and the date is within range of the Celtic Imbolg). No evidence connects Valentine's Day with the Roman Lupercalia (an 18th century theory) or to any romantic or avian quality in either of the two early Italian saints who had the name.

The custom of sending special cards or letters on this date flourished in England c.1840-1870, declined around the turn of the 20th century, and revived in the 1920s.

Latin Valentinus is from valentia "strength, capacity." That comes from the verb valere "be strong, be well, be worth, have power, be able," from the Proto-Indo-European base *wal- "be strong." This root also has descendants in wield (Old English weldan "to govern, possess, have control over"), and in the Germanic -wald "power," which forms the second element in many old Germanic personal names (e.g. Arnold; from Old High German Arenwald, literally "having the strength of an eagle").