In England, we know this time of year as autumn. The nights are drawing in, it’s getting colder, spiders and other insects are heading indoors and trees have turned beautiful shades of gold, red and brown. Our North American cousins call this season fall. Which of autumn or fall is the better option to use? Have people in the USA or Canada ever used the term autumn? Have people here in England or the greater UK ever used fall?
It’s all in the language
Autumn or fall? It’s a question that’s always intrigued me. As an Englishman, I’ve always been inclined to believe that we have the right way, after all, it’s here where the modern English language developed.. but then, the split off of what is now known as British English and US English wasn’t all that long ago and US English is, as any linguist will tell you, a different beast.
Where did the names autumn or fall come from? To me, this season has always been autumn. This is what I was taught growing up, it’s what my parents call it and grandparents called it. I first heard ‘fall’ used to describe the season during the late ’90s on television. It was through the prevalence of North American TV programmes aimed at the teen market of which I was part at the time that the the usage of fall to describe the season first entered my consciousness. I’ve since heard English children say ‘fall’ instead of autumn, yet this isn’t taught in schools here. I wonder if children are picking this up from videos on YouTube and other video streaming sites? Let’s look at the history of the two words.
Only two seasons, summer (sumor in Old English) and winter (spelled the same, winter, in Old English), have stood the test of time in the English language. Fixed names for spring and autumn are more recent, probably because these seasons were seen as less important than summer and winter.
Where did the terms originate?
Use of both autumn and fall originated here, in England. Fall was used from the mid-1600s, a shortened version of the expression ‘fall of the leaf’, which is what the time of year was known as in the mid-1500s. Prior to this, the season was known as harvest. Whilst ‘fall’, from ‘fall of the leaf’ isn’t used much in England today, it’s opposite season, spring, is. Spring probably came about at the same time, from ‘spring of the leaf’ (replacing Lenten or Lent), is still with us. Both are good descriptions of what trees and plants do at those particular times of the year – remember, most communities back then were rural.
So where did autumn come from?
Autumn, autumpne in Middle English, came from Old French automne (which in turn was probably borrowed from Latin autumnus). Autumn is the older of the two words, first appearing in English in the 1300s along with many other French words of the time. Look to the Norman invasion of 1066, subjugation of the English and replacement of the English landowning class with Norman French speaking Normans for the introduction of French words into English. Anyone outside the new aristocracy would have still been speaking Old English at this point, but over time, words from what became known as Anglo-Norman (the distinct French dialect spoken by the ruling Normans in England) cascaded down into normal use.
Eventually, Anglo-Norman fell out of use amongst the ruling classes – but the French language was now popular, what we might today call trendy. French words were to stick around and mix further into the English language. Autumn being one such word.
So if autumn came into use after the season was known as harvest and before it became called fall, why is autumn prevalent this side of the Atlantic and fall the other? It probably comes down to timing. Fall happened to be popular at the time the English were first colonising North America. Although both fall and autumn were used there, fall stuck and autumn fell away. In England and the other countries of today’s United Kingdom, autumn came back to prominence with the use of fall declining. So, back to the question – autumn or fall?
Autumn or fall – conclusion
Can we say one of autumn or fall is better? Fall, a word deriving from Germanic and, like summer, winter and spring, being present in Old English (as feallan) is a better fit than the imported autumn, which stands alone amongst our seasons as a Latin derived word, despite its long use in the English language. Fans of Anglish might be inclined to agree.
Whether you agree or not, don’t expect people to change their use from autumn to fall. Unless they’re presently a child growing up watching American TV shows…