Autumn and Fall…Why do We Have Both?
The leaves are turning and so are the calendar pages, so that means it’s officially the beginning of a new season. Some may say it’s Fall, others may say it’s Autumn. But of course both are correct. But why do you we have two names for this same season? We don’t have two names for any other season, so what makes Autumn (Fall) so special?
ROGER SCHLUETER has the answer:
Looks like you “fall” into the trap of not knowing your word history. So, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that hundreds of years ago, there seemed to be as many words for spring as there were thorns on a budding rose bush.
Back in the 12th and 13th centuries, people marked the period of regrowth by calling it “lent” or “lenten,” making it synonymous with the sacred spring observance of the Christian church.
But, perhaps in an early example of political correctness, they fell out of favor by 1400, replaced by a variety of more secular terms. Some called it “spring” or “spryng tyme” to describe new plants springing forth while others called it “ver” (Latin for green, e.g., “verdant”), “primetemps” (French for “new time”), etc. By the 1600s, the simple “spring” had won out.
“Fall” turned out just the opposite — going from a commonly agreed-upon term into the two words we know today. Before 1500, the season was known as some form of “harvest,” because, of course, agriculture was the dominant profession. Hence, the season was called “haerfest” — the harvesting of crops. Even today, the Dutch call it “herfst” and the Germans, “Herbst.”
But as English cities grew, “harvest” began losing its meaning as a time of year to more and more people. So, they started looking for an alternative, leading to the two very different terms we use today.
By the 1500s, some had hit on “autumn,” which they had borrowed and shortened from the Old French “autompne.” It’s a time-honored word that some trace back to the Latin “autumnus” and the even-older, pre-Roman Etruscan language once used on the Italian peninsula.
But that may have been a bit too erudite for some, so they looked to the Germanic languages for words like “feallan” and “fall,” all of which mean to “fall from a height.” As early as 1545, the English were using “fall” as a contraction for “fall of the leaf” and “fall of the year.”
Yet, unlike spring, both words survived, and, some speculate, the Atlantic Ocean may be an important reason.
“Fall” arose about the same time that the British were sailing to the New World. Sir Walter Raleigh used it as a contrast to spring in his poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” and the word just seemed to catch on with the colonists. For reasons unknown, the term “fall” seemed to fade away like the leaves in Britain, where the more formal “autumn” continues to dominate.
So who got the better of the deal? We did, wrote English lexicographer H.W. Fowler in his 1908 book, “The King’s English”:
“Fall is better on the merits than autumn in every way: It is short, Saxon (like the other three season names), picturesque. It reveals its derivation to every one who uses it — not to the scholar only, like autumn. We once had as good a right to it as the Americans, but we have chosen to let the right lapse. To use the word now is no better than larceny.”
But at least the British do have a sense of humor, as black as it might be sometimes. In the 1850s, “autumn” apparently became British slang for a hanging through a drop-door, according to “The QPB Encyclopedia of Word Origins” by Robert Hendrickson. So, in a grim way, the British did use fall and autumn synonymously.
A final interesting note: If you go waaaay back to about 500 or so, Anglo-Saxons apparently had just one season — winter, which, because of the extreme struggle and hardship it represented, is found across many languages. Some think it goes back 5,000 years to a word meaning “wet.”
Later, Europeans and the British marked the winter-summer cycle, from the German “sommer” or “sumer.” The Chinese, on the other hand, marked the year in terms of spring and fall. Now, of course, the twain has met with all four seasons.