- As a name for the third season of the year, fall is favored by American English and autumn by British English, perhaps due to historic separation by the Atlantic Ocean
- Originally “fall of the leaf,” fall is from the Germanic-rooted Old English verb, faellan, likely from the Proto-Indo-European *pol; Latin’s fallere (trip, deceive) is related, giving English words like false, fail, or fallible
- Autumn comes from the Old French autumpne, from Latin’s autumnus; the Latin may be connected to augere, meaning to increase, as crops at harvest do, or from an unknown Etruscan source
- By the 16th century, both autumn and fall were displacing the original term for the season, harvest, from Old English’s haerfest, which the OED attests in 902 and is probably from the Proto-Indo-European *kerp, related to Latin’s carpe diem
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or a few do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, ” Shakespeare plaintively–or persuasively, depending on your perspective–sonneted on man’s impermanence.
But what do we call that time of year?
A little late? I know. Most of the leaves have fallen by now–or, in SoCal, most of us have pulled out sweaters for those bone-chilling, 50-degree days. But, each year, as we swap out Satan for Santa, aren’t we always asking ourselves: What ever happened to Thanksgiving?
Let’s linger over leftovers and talk about harvest. Or what was once called harvest.
Fall & Autumn
This side of the pond, we call the third season of the year fall, as opposed to the autumn of British English. Why did this come to be? Some attribute the difference to the Atlantic Ocean, for both fall and autumn were displacing English’s original word for the season, harvest, in the 16th century, around the time when the British were settling parts of North America. Perhaps certain linguistic idiosyncrasies, such as a preference for fall, settled well. Check out this short Slate article by Forrest Wickman for more on this difference–including a little of bit of British envy.
As first attested in 1545, fall appeared as “fall of the leaf,” mirroring the origin of spring (“spring of the leaf”), which I picked apart earlier.
Fall as a noun–whether of rain, sword, height, or humanity–comes from fall as a verb, handed down from Old English’s feallan, which could mean “to fall,” “fail,” “decay,” or “die.” Through a Proto-Germanic root of *fallan or *fallanan, etymologists trace the Old English verb back to Proto-Indo-European. The Online Etymology dictionary posits *pol, meaning “to fall.” It has some ancient cognates: Armenian p’ul (downfall); Lithuanian puola/pulti (fall); and Old Prussian aupallai (to find; literally, to fall upon). Shipley, however, glosses the Indo-European root as “to slide,” maybe trying to better articulate the connection historical linguistics entertain to the Latin fallere, variously meaning “to cause to fall,” “trip,” “mislead,” or “deceive.”
You might recognize Latin’s fallere in such derivatives as false, fail, fault, fallacy, or fallible.
Falling, deceiving, dying–down is bad. The sun goes down, ushering in nightfall? Bipedal man falls down, causing injury? Observations of the damage–or death–due to gravity? Perhaps these etymological connections lend support to Lakoff and Johnson’s The Metaphors We Live By, in which the authors theorize overarching conceptual metaphors (such as up is good, down is bad) that organize our understanding of our experience–and the language we use to express it.
The OED’s earliest attestation of autumn–autumpne–comes from a work of translation by Chaucer in 1374. While its form has shed more sounds than a maple sheds leaves in October, English plucks autumn from Romance names for the seasons: the Old French autompne, in turn from Latin’s autumnus, sometimes documented as auctumnus.
The origin for autumnus is not certain. Some have proposed a connection to augere (to increase; think augment), whose past participle is auctus (think auction). This does make some agricultural sense, with the increase of crops’ yield at harvest during fall. Or autumn.
Shipley argues for an earlier Latin vertumnus, noting the change from warmth to cold in its relationship to vertere (to turn; think convert, divert, verse, and the many others in the root’s big family). To avoid confusion with the Etruscan god of the seasons, Vertumnus, he continues, the Latin-lipped altered the form of the word. Indeed, the Romans worshipped a god of the seasons, change, and plant life, named Vertumnus, whose altar may have been inspired by the supreme Etruscan deity, Voltumna.
Autumn may be Etruscan in origin, but the connection between Voltumna, vertere, and autumn is probably due to folk etymology. In folk etymology, the form or sound of a word, particularly a foreign or obscure word, is changed to accord with ostensibly commonsensical, though mistaken, connections to known words. Click the link for some fun examples of folk etymology.
While the relationship between autumn and augment may be unclear, it does point us to harvest, which, in the form of haerfast, named the season between summer and winter as bar back as 902. Harvest may once have encapsulated the entire season, but, with rise of fall and autumn, it narrowed to refer to “the time of gathering of crops,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, then to the action of gathering, and, yet later, to the product of gathering.
Speaking of “that time of year,” poems about autumn and fall–and English really does have a great repertory of them–may remind us of life’s transience, urging us to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” (I know, I think that one’s a bit more vernal, but you get the idea.)
Or, as Horace put it, carpe diem. To “seize the day,” or, better yet, pluck the day while it is ripe. To pick from the tree, heavy with apples. Through the Proto-Germanic *harbitas and some classic Grimm’s law, harvest ultimately is yielded from the Proto-Indo-European *kerp, meaning “gather,” “pluck,” or “harvest.” Latin has carpere, which could also mean “to cut” or “divide.” Greek has καρπός, or the product of plucking, “fruit.” And speaking of cutting, Sanskrit has krpana for sword and krpani for “shears”
So often, we talk about taking a step back during the holiday season to see the big picture of all the sales and events, all the gatherings and obligations, all the recipes and rituals. (I could make an argument that Black Friday represents a new form of crop gathering and ritualistic celebration of bounty, but I’ll stick to etymology.)
I think etymology helps us to do this stepping back. The origin of words like fall and harvest have an immediacy, a salience, a simplicity, or a literalness that all of our myriad, modern goings-on seem to cloud up.
Leaves fall.mCrops ripen. Crops are picked. Life. Death. Nourishment. Change.