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The season before winter is “Autumn” or “Fall”? :)

6 min read

Originally written on September 2020, updated 2022

The trees are turning, the weather’s getting cooler, laughing pumpkins are back—it’s fall!
No, that one English friend tells you: it’s autumn.
So how did two completely unalike words come to refer to the same season?
Yes. That’s true. There is a little bit indecision about the season that comes before winter. Despite the plants die, or seem to, at the same time are at their most magnificent: they produce more fruit and, above all, turn vibrant colors. Some are relieved at the end of a hot summer, and other scared of the long winter ahead….and we don’t even know what to call this weird time.
So, is it autumn? Or fall?

The understanding of seasons and their stories varies dramatically based on where you’re located geographically and, if applicable, which people colonized your country. Maybe you don’t know that in the temperate zones the seasons are generally split up into four, in tropical zones usually two and in South Asia usually six. The United States sticks to four seasons, and also in parts of the country like South Florida and most of the Southwest, which really only have a wet season and a dry season.
Interestingly, the etymological roots of the English words for the seasons, summer, winter, spring, and autumn/fall, are all weird in their own ways, and the words for the seasons are extremely old.
For istance, “Summer” originally dates back to the Proto-Indo-European root “sem”, which meant “half” (???) and probably suggests that, in Europe, there were originally only two seasons.
“Winter” similarly dates from Proto-Indo-European (the root of all major European languages), this time from “wed”, which meant water, wet, or rainy. Well. But the two extreme seasons, winter and summer, are very, very old words. And the other two seasons not so much.
Until around the 16th century, the English language did not really have distinct words for either spring or fall (or autumn). From the 14th to the 16th centuries there were a whole bunch of terms: vere, primetide, and especially lenten. So, “spring” was not fully lexicalized in the language. Same thing for fall, that was sometimes described as the time for harvest, even though “harvest” was not the name of the season, but it was just what you did during the late summer or early winter.
Coincidence or not, fall was the very last of the four seasons to become codified with a name, or even the designation as a season on par with the others: there are mentions of winter, summer, and spring in manuscripts dating back to the 12th century and, despite the name of spring may not have been settled upon, the idea that it was a true season came much earlier than with fall.
Apparently, the word “autumn” has French roots, and in fact in modern French the word is “automne”, which in turn has Latin roots, coming from the word autumnus, which in turn comes from…somewhere. These etymologies are all basically mysteries, as this is all just assumptions based on plausibly similar older words and meanings.

Autumn showed up in English first around the late 14th and early 15th centuries, though it coexisted with the term “harvest” for another 200 years.
“Fall” is a little bit different: apparently, It first shows up in the mid-16th century in England, primarily at first as “the fall of the leaf,” which was shortened to just “fall.” Just like “harvest,” the term is descriptive, but more evocative: not just a word coming from the most significative action taking place during this period, but also a more poetic observation of what makes this season different. On the other hand, the etymology of “fall” is not that interesting. It can be trace it back to Middle English, Old English, Proto-Germanic, and then Proto-Indo-European, but in each era it basically looked like “fall” and meant, of course, “fall”.
The recognition of fall/autumn as a distinct season started happening in England right around the time that the American colonies began to separate linguistically from British English. By the 17th century, with American colonies already established, more calls for what was called “spelling reform” began. Ever since the Norman conquest, English had been littered with scraps of French. As time went on, the English spoken in America and the English spoken in Britain diverged as there wasn’t as much contact between the two groups of English speakers. Throw into the mix the independence of the United States, and the gulf between the two dialects of English became more evident.
Noah Webster, the same of Webster’s dictionary, was an ardent spelling reformer, but while his work was couched in doing the logical thing, his motivations were also political: he was in fact primarily responsible for making changes to American English spelling in words like “center” (not “centre”) and “color” (not “colour”). His work was widely adopted, which goes to show that around the time of independence, the American colonies were absolutely ready to change the way they spoke and wrote as a means to differentiate themselves from the imperialist British. In any case, back to out topic, a handful of words got caught in the identity crisis, and autumn was one of them. Both autumn and fall were born in Britain, and both emigrated to America. But autumn was, by far, the more popular term for quite a long time. In fact, the “autumn” sense of “fall” wasn’t even entered into a dictionary until 1755, when Samuel Johnson first entered it in his Dictionary of the English Language. And, by the mid-19th century “fall” was used more often in the United States, while “autumn” more often in Britain.

In a 1908 essay that somewhat examines Americanisms, English lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler stated that “fall” is a far superior term to “autumn,” but that “fall” is now distinctly American. He wrote:

In the details of divergence, they have sometimes had the better of us. 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; and we once had as good a right to it as the Americans; but we have chosen to let the right lapse, and to use the word now is no better than larceny.

In any case, because autumn and fall became both the names of the newly recognized season at around the same time, both terms are now used in both the U.K. and the United States. To be exact, nowadays in the U.K. “autumn” is the more common word, with “fall” easily understood (but not the norm). And to an American, it’s the other way around…

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