What’s the story, autumn glory?

Autumn leavesOne of the many differences between British English and American English that’s always intrigued me is autumn vs. fall.

We use winter, spring and summer on both sides of the pond. Yet we can’t seem to agree what to call this time of the year.

So now that autumn has officially begun, I thought I’d do a bit of delving.

What I discovered was that although fall is now widely used in the U.S., the term is neither exclusively American nor American in origin.

First it was harvest…

A fascinating article on Slate reveals that back in the 12th and 13th centuries spring was called lent or lenten. The “third season of the year” was called harvest, as in “a time of reaping”. This eventually became relegated to a mere agricultural term.

… then came fall

Spring and fall initially appeared around the 16th century as spring of the leaf and fall of the leaf (both the words spring and fall being Germanic in origin). These were shortened to the one-word form by the 17th century, which was long before the development of AmE.

Arrival of autumn

By the 16th century, autumn had been ‘borrowed’ from the French automne (itself derived from the Latin autumnus).

In the 17th century, English-speaking emigrants took both words with them to the New World. Fall became the more common word in North America. Autumn gained the upper hand in Britain to the extent that fall was eventually considered archaic.

But it is, at least, familiar to Brits today. We’re used to seeing fall mentioned in the media with reference to American television series or holidays to New England in the Fall.

What about Australia and Canada?

Australian writers tend to opt for autumn. This may well be because most of the indigenous trees in Australia are evergreens, so they don’t experience a lot of falling leaves.

However, naming the season between summer and winter isn’t quite so straightforward in Canada. As you’d expect, Canadian Francophones use l’automne. But English-speaking Canadians switch between fall and autumn. The former is the informal, everyday choice; the latter is mainly used in scientific, literary and poetic contexts.

Autumn or fall: which is best?

Brits may view many Americanisms as inferior, but few could disagree with H.E. Fowler in “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.”

So, there you have autumn vs. fall. Hopefully you’ve learnt something from reading this? I certainly did researching it.

P.S. Nod to Oasis for inspiring the title.

(photo courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography via Freedigitalphotos.net)

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4 comments on “What’s the story, autumn glory?
  1. Julia says:

    Thank you, Geraldine!
    It was very interesting to know some facts about this matter .

  2. Hi, Geraldine

    What you say about “harvest” formerly = “autumn” is interesting on at least two counts: a) it is a close relation of a word that, as a German-speaker, you’ll recognize, i.e. Herbst (Low German Harvst, Harfst) and b) in Scots it maintained the two meanings much longer than in English – though I’m not sure if the “autumn” meaning still exists.

    I fine “fall” terribly useful for remembering which way the clocks go according to that old adage: “Spring forwards, fall backwards”. 🙂

    • Hi Jeremy,

      Many thanks for stopping by. Even more for taking the time to comment!

      I must admit that I hadn’t found/made that connection between ‘harvest’ and ‘herbst’, so thanks for pointing it out. And I confess to not being very up on my Scots…

      I too find that saying rather handy. It certainly wouldn’t work so well with ‘autumn’ 🙂

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