Hoar is one of the legends of the fall.
As the autumn ages, and leaves turn and let go and settle together on the soil, the temperatures fall, too, and the donzerly dew crystallizes into a beard. The day is greyer. We are on the downslope of the year, when all that has grown and produced is ready to nourish people and animals and then turn back to nourish the earth itself. And you know the fall begins by the turning of the weather; and you know it continues by the turning of the leaves; and you know it grows old by the morning hoarfrost; and you know it has fallen all the way by the shadows of the shortest day. These are the legends that tell you the time of the fall.
We think we know the fall of people that way, too: the passions cool; the green freshness is gone; the fringe goes grey; and at last there is the shortest day and the slide into the shadows, when even the legends must fall. But it is not as simple as all that, for age can bring depth and understanding as well. We may lose our literal scotopia, our night vision, but we can see better in darker times; and our scotagons, our unseen nemeses known only through struggle, come to reveal their shapes to us. It is true that the course is not the same for all – some people grow in foolishness, some in complacency, some in selfishness, some in hostility – but grey hair is at least a sign of having had the time to grow in mastery and even nobility. Not all that has hoar is hoary.
This word, hoar (and its derivatives hoary and hoarfrost), is not new, that’s for sure. And we know where it comes from. In Old English it (in its old form har) meant ‘grey’ or ‘old’; it came from a Proto-Germanic root reconstructed as *hairaz meaning ‘grey’, and that in turn came from a Proto-Indo-European root *(s)ḱeh₃- ‘grey, dark’. If we follow the descending lines of these roots, we find many, including Ancient Greek σκότος (skótos, ‘darkness’, seen in words such as scotomata and scotopia), English shadow, and, more closely related to hoar, German hehr ‘noble’ and Herr ‘lord’.
And so it is. In the inexorable cycle of the seasons, the leaves turn and fall, and the frost forecasts a full shutdown. But in human life, although we also have our seasons, even with grey hair we are not necessarily dimming; we can still be fresh and may even turn over a new leaf.