The Grammarphobia Blog

Seasonal employment

Q: This one has been driving me crazy. In my first 45 years, I always heard TV meteorologists say “seasonal” with regard to weather conditions. Now, I hear them all saying “seasonable.” Which is correct and why?

A: I can see why you’re confused.

“Seasonal” and “seasonable” are both legitimate words, and they do overlap a bit. But they have somewhat different meanings when talking about the weather and other things that vary with the seasons.

The adjective “seasonal” refers to things that depend on, or occur in, specific seasons of the year. Example: “Hurricanes are seasonal in Florida.” In other words, hurricanes occur in Florida during the hurricane season, from June 1 to Nov. 30.

The word “seasonable” refers to something that is timely or appropriate to the season. Example: “Heavy rains are seasonable during the hurricane season.” In other words, you can get heavy rains at any time of the year, but they’re likely during the hurricane season.

That’s the short answer to your question. You can stop here. But read on if you’d like to find out more about these two tricky words.

“Seasonal” is relatively new, as words go. It was first recorded in print in the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and meant “pertaining to or characteristic of the seasons of the year, or some of them.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from Robert Mudie’s book Man, in His Physical Structure and Adaptations (1838): “The call of the partridge – the seasonal song of the nightingale.”

Today, we use “seasonal” to describe things that vary from season to season, depend on the seasons, or are typical of them (as in “seasonal migrations” and such).

The adjective “seasonable” is hundreds of years older. It made its first published appearance around 1380 in a sermon by the English theologian John Wycliffe.

When Wycliffe wrote that “tyme is lesse sesounable, and charite withdrawen,” according to the OED, the meaning was “suitable to the time of year.”

A similar meaning, “occurring at the right season, opportune,” was first recorded around 1412. And today we also use “seasonable” to describe something that’s timely, occurring at the proper time, or suitable to the season or circumstances.

So it’s correct to describe as “seasonable” anything (weather, for instance) that’s appropriate to the season.

However, there are right and wrong ways to use “seasonable.”

The OED notes that “seasonable” is sometimes erroneously used in place of “seasonal” when describing workers or trades dependent on a particular season.

The dictionary cites this line from a Glasgow newspaper in 1923 as an erroneous usage: “Persons engaged in seasonable trades in which the duration of seasonable employment is too short to enable them to qualify for benefit.”

It also has an excerpt from a letter to The Listener in early January 1980: “Will the BBC please note that the word they want is ‘seasonable,’ not ‘seasonal.’ One has seasonable items like mince pies and carols; ‘seasonal’ is applied to rainfall and fluctuations in car sales, i.e., things that happen with the changing seasons.”

That letter-writer’s view may be a bit narrow, however. We in the states (and our retail outlets) often describe tinsel and holiday gift wrap and pumpkins and turkeys and Valentine cards as “seasonal” merchandise.

That description seems accurate to me: tinsel, Valentine cards, and so on are dependent on particular seasons. Their appearance could, of course, be called “seasonable” as well: timely and appropriate to the season.

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