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A word in season

A look at how 'autumn' and 'fall' evolved in British and American English.

By Ruth Walker / November 23, 2007



It's that time of year again. Thanks­giving is an occasion to look back on the blessings (and challenges) of the year just winding down. Then suddenly we're in the thick of Christmas preparations – travel planning, shopping, scoping out holiday entertainment, organizing parties and gifts.

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And then, boom, we realize it's not a moment too soon to start thinking of whatever projects we need to have in motion at the start of the year: "I'd better get that meeting together this week, because once we really get into December, we won't be able to get anyone's attention."

And meanwhile, all of Greater Boston seems like one big construction site as crews of all kinds scurry about as if they were trying to finish it all before the first big winter storm – which they probably are. A whole row of new trees, for instance, has suddenly sprouted through square holes in the sidewalk along one major thoroughfare near me. Meanwhile, whoever has the concession for those orange construction barrels must be cleaning up.

All this activity makes me think that if there's a single day that gives us a natural vantage point to consider the entire year at one whack, the day after Thanksgiving just might be it. It's like that point in a movie where it picks up speed toward the end.

Or to go to another metaphor: These busy final weeks of the year are a kind of harvest, and not just in an agricultural sense.

I've been meaning to look into the season that has two names, fall (in North America) and autumn (elsewhere in the English-speaking world), and now that I've done so, I find it's more complicated than just two.

The background of autumn isn't quite clear. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word came into English via Old French from a Latin word, autumnus, "probably of Etruscan origin."

"The fall," or more fully "the fall of the leaf," was once a common term in England for the season between summer and winter. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes Capt. John Smith (yes, him of Pocahontas fame), writing in 1631, "The best time to ... remove younger trees is at ... the fall of the leaf." (Advice still followed today, as my new sidewalk trees attest.)

But as Smith and his contemporaries established English in North America, the language was evolving back on the other side of the Atlantic. Autumn took hold and fall "obsolesced," as a lexicographer might say.

That's a common pattern in language development: The "colonials" end up with an older form of a language that continues to evolve in its homeland. The same dynamic is at work with Parisian and Canadian French.

It turns out, though, that until the 16th century, most people referred to the season between summer and winter as harvest. As autumn and fall established themselves as names for the season, harvest narrowed its meaning from the time of gathering crops to the act of gathering them, and from there to the crops so gathered.

If we want more evidence of the influence of the agricultural cycle in language, we might consider that the word season itself is rooted in the idea of sowing a field. (Vivaldi's "Quattro Stagioni," on the other hand, derive from a different metaphor – season as "station," which may suggest to moderns a view of the year as a cute little four-stop circular tramline.)

Wondering whether there was a seasonal verb for autumn, as there is for summer and winter, I ran across this from Canadian writer Bill Casselman: "To hibernate is to pass the winter in a state of torpor. To estivate is to the pass the summer so. But we need a verb to describe what many do all the year round. With due humility, I suggest totannate from Latin, totum 'all' + annus 'year' meaning to pass the whole year in a state of torpor."

Ah, but an autumnal verb could not mean torpor. Not with all we have to get done before Christmas.

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