Why Do We Say Autumn And Fall?

It's fun to sit and think about where words came from, especially everyday words. In general, the more commonly the word is used on a daily basis, the longer it takes to change. The very word it itself goes back to Old English from the fifth to 11th century, and has the same origin words, or cognates, in Dutch (het), Frisian (also it), and more (per Online Etymology Dictionary). Other words, like the names of the seasons, have a bit more unusual origins. Does spring, for instance, have anything to do with bright, warm weather putting a spring in your step, so to speak? Per Dictionary.com, it's an old verb meaning "to move quickly," like "spring out of bed," or how spring weather feels.

How about the current seasons, then — fall, or autumn? Plenty of folks are going to raise their hands and say, "Where I'm from, people call it [blank]." And yes, there are regional differences within any English-speaking country, whether it be the U.S., the U.K., Canada, or wherever. In general, it's commonly stated that people in the U.K. say autumn more than fall, while the U.S. is opposite. Why? Babbel Magazine outlines one common explanation: fall is "simpler," and autumn "more regal and Latin." Newsweek goes one step further and claims the difference was a conscious, political statement in the early days of the U.S., to differentiate the new nation from England.

But what do the words mean? Is fall really as obvious as "falling leaves"? And is autumn actually Latin? Yes, and yes.

Gather, pluck, and grow sad with years

Bear in mind that no one sat down one day hundreds of years ago and said, "From this point, we shall call thee ... autumn! And also fall!" Seasons got their original names based on the function they played in society, particularly related to farming. What do we do during that really cold time of year where there's lots of snow and we just hide inside and eat what we already harvested? Why, we get "sad with years," or "wintercearig," as Online Etymology Dictionary cites. The old Anglo-Saxons reckoned their years by numbers of winters, literally "wet seasons" filled with lots of precipitation and soggy ground. As Live Science says, those hardy northerners really only cared about two times of year: the nice one and the not-so-nice one.

But before such winter-sad times, folks harvested food and stocked up. You know the stereotype: cornucopias overflowing with gourds galore, heaps of leaves that dogs and children jump into, Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) where people stockpile calories by stuffing themselves like the turkeys they eat. In Old Norse, which greatly influenced English, the word for harvest was haust — to gather and pluck (per Bustle). And the Latin version, which came from the language of ancient Rome? Autumnus, which made its way into English via Norman French following the Norman Invasion circa 1066 C.E. French, of course, derives from Latin. By the 14th century, as Online Etymology Dictionary also says, autumn was in full circulation in English. 

A supposed fall from linguistic standards

How about fall, then? Was it really the byproduct of a bunch of dull Americans staring at trees as leaves fell and proclaiming, "Fall!" The truth is that fall has roots in Old English, just like winter, spring, it, and lots of other words. As Bustle says, the Old English words fiaell and feallan literally meant "to fall from a great height." So the word was already there, even in its current meaning, as far back as 1,500 years ago. We see the word fall used in poetic contexts, like autumn before it, by the 16th century, as Slate reports. The "spring of the leaf" and "fall of the leaf" were common poetic devices used to contrast the two times of year.

So why then do folks in the U.S. tend to use fall more than autumn? Is it due to greater allegiance to an Old English, pre-Norman French word rather than a frilly, Latinized word? Not consciously and deliberately. We know by the 19th century, as Live Science says, that fall had become an Americanism in the eyes of British lexicographers. Eventually, there might have been home-country pride in the mix, too. As Newsweek says, American author H.W. Fowler in 1908 denounced spellings like colour rather than color, and words like autumn instead of fall. But in the end, autumn has a lovely lilt and sound to it, and fall works just as well. And besides, everyone knows both words at this point, anyway.