Reading through the blogs that I follow, I’ve noticed that the subject of many of them is the fall. That melancholy time when the leaves change colour, the tourists fade away, and the evenings gradually get that little bit darker each day. It’s a beautiful time of year in many ways, but, not being American, whenever I see the word fall, I hesitate for a brief moment before I realise what people mean. Because of course, I say autumn, not fall. Why do we have these two, very different, words?
At first glance, this might seem like a stereotypical case of British English retaining the older, more archaic, somehow more romantic name, with American English adopting a simpler, more logical word. But, the truth is a little more complex. First of all, originally in Europe, people didn’t really have terms for Spring and Autumn, instead seeing the year in terms of two seasons: warm and cold (here on the west coast of Ireland it tends to feel like the year is divided between a wet but slightly warmer spring, and a wet but slightly colder autumn).
Around about the 16th century, people began to identify the intermediate times between the two seasons as spring of the leaf and fall of the leaf, with them both being shortened to, of course, spring and fall. Autumn had come into the English language (from the French Automne) had entered the English language around the same time, but only began to gain popularity in Britain in the 18th century. Perhaps not coincidentally, this coincided with increasing divergence between Britain and the colonies, culminating in the American War of Independence. I think is at least partly why America retained fall. Being across the Atlantic, they couldn’t instantly keep up with linguistic trends back in the Old World. And probably a lot of people saw autumn being used in Britain and deliberately decided to use fall to maintain a separate identity. Likewise, some in Britain probably wished to distinguish themselves from their American cousins, and saw using autumn as a means to achieve this.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that fall is the older word. We’re so used to thinking that American English can be so modern and simplified, that it’s nice to see that (just as some claim that modern American accents are closer to 16th-century English accents than modern English accents), in this case, it’s the United States (and Canada!) that is maintaining an old tradition. Though to be honest, I do prefer autumn! Fall is just too simplistic for me: it’s the time when the leaves fall so let’s call it fall! Like so many English words, autumn’s meaning isn’t obvious if you’ve never seen it before, and it makes you think about it. And I do love thinking about words. Plus, if every country named their seasons in a similar way, in Galway they’d all be called rain.