‘Shetaa’: Arabic word for winter can symbolise many things

Other Arabic words not directly connected to winter are derived from the same root meaning

Shetaa is the Arabic word for winter
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Winter has many rich symbolic meanings across cultures.

In the West, the coldest season of the year is often used as a metaphor to express the dark periods in someone’s life, such as endings or death. It can also be a time to be introspective or sometimes to describe the beginning of a rebirth.

These ideas are also present in the East, and particularly in the Arab world's interpretation of the winter months. This week’s Arabic Word of the Week, shetaa (the Arabic word for winter), carries with it symbolic meanings relating to the passing of time, ideas of endurance, perseverance, rest and other more hopeful themes.

Shetaa is a noun derived from the Arabic word shetoo. Consisting of the three Arabic letters sheen, tah and wow, shetoo is a verb that refers to the action of scattering or dispersing. From this word, shetaa is formed to have several interconnected meanings. The first is winter or the rainy season, the second is cold and the third is rain.

Several other Arabic words are also derived from shetoo.

Shatara, which means to rain heavily, has been adapted in the colloquial Lebanese dialect as shetee – to refer to the action of raining. Other words derived from shetoo include shataan, which means a difference or distinction between two or several things, and shatim, to verbally insult or abuse someone.

It’s worth noting that while all these words are derived from the same root word and have different meanings, they are also connected through the idea of a harsh energy or action or a distinct contrast. The winter season is not only a difficult one in most places around the world, it is perhaps the most extreme of the seasons: one in which a particular form – water, snow, ice – of an element falls on to the Earth.

Interestingly, shetaa is one of those classic Arabic words that are used colloquially across dialects to mean winter specifically.

And while shetaa can carry stark symbolism, there are several idioms in Arabic that speak of the blessings of winter. From the idea that a “harsh winter promises a beautiful spring” to “winter makes the soul contemplate and reflect”, it is often viewed as a time when an individual is tested in terms of their patience and faith.

There are also many Arabic dishes traditionally seen as winter meals. These include lentil soup and mansaf, a Jordanian dish in which lamb is cooked in milk and yogurt and then put over warm bread or rice.

One of the most popular songs by Lebanese songstress Fairouz is titled Habbaitak Be El Saif (I Loved You in Summer) released in 1970.

Despite the title, the song also refers to winter in its lyrics as a difficult period of longing. The song is a first-person narration of a young girl waiting for her love to return during the summer and then winter, only for him never to return, leaving her alone in the rain.

There is also the 1981 Egyptian film, Laylat Shetaa Dafe'a (A Warm Winter’s Night), starring comedian Adel Emam and actress Yousra. It is an Arabic reimagining of the 1934 film It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable. In the film Yousra plays Sarah, a spoilt daughter of a rich construction mogul, in a strange predicament.

On a warm winter night, she meets a young journalist named Mamdouh on a bus and tells him a story. She is in love with a young man but her father has taken her to on a trip to Aswan in the south of Egypt, where he plans for her to marry someone he has chosen instead.

Sarah runs away and her father offers the public a reward for her safe return. Mamdouh, upon realising who her father is, decides to help her in the hopes that it will turn out to be a good story for him to sell. However, neither of them anticipate the feelings they will develop for each other as they run away from Sarah’s father and into the unknown.

Updated: November 10, 2023, 6:02 PM