Today is September 22 and that is the official first day of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. Most people are focusing on what new pumpkin-spice flavored food items they can nibble on while embellishing their houses with the plethora of harvest-themed decorations that are available, without caring one iota if the proper term is AUTUMN or FALL. Am I right? I’d bet good money that the vast majority of folks in English speaking countries consider the words interchangeable, even if one term for this season is predominantly used over the other in their part of the world. Of course, as we authors know arguably better than anyone, if there is even one person who frets over these sorts of specifics, they will search through a novel with a fine-toothed comb until they find a phrase or single word for a GOTCHA! moment.
I confess to being in the category of assuming AUTUMN and FALL were interchangeable seasonal words when writing my novels. I certainly have been wrong in making such assumptions—rarely, thankfully—so when an oh-so-caring critic wrote me long ago to point out my egregious error in using the word “fall” for the autumn season when that is never done in England, I had to discover if I (as well as the three editors who checked for accuracy before publication) were wrong. As an aside, a quick search of all my novels revealed “autumn” was the clear winner with “fall” used a literal handful of times. Nevertheless, being an admitted word-nerd, I was curious what the etymological facts were.
Elizabeth continued to laugh at her husband’s silliness as she crossed the threshold. Immediately she was enveloped by a profound sensation of peace and contentment. In one swift glance she knew this room was perfect, it was home. The walls were covered with rich mahogany paneling and cream wallpaper printed with a twining design of autumn leaves. The ceiling was also cream colored with intricately scrolled beams of polished mahogany. ~Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Two Shall Become One
A Brief History of Seasons
While not directly relevant to the topic of this blog, it is interesting to note that until some fifteen-hundred years ago, the western world did not divide time into seasons. For instance, Anglo-Saxons marked the passage of time with just one season: WINTER, a concept considered equivalent to hardship or adversity that metaphorically represented the year in its entirety. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the title character rescues a kingdom that had been terrorized by a monster for “12 winters.” According to Folk Taxonomies in Early English by Earl R. Anderson, the importance of winter in marking the passage of time is evidenced by the constancy of its name over time and across many languages.
SUMMER is a time-honored concept, although never quite as weighty as winter. In Old English, the word “gear” connoted the warmer part of the year. This word gave way to the Germanic “sumer,” which is related to the word for “half.” Eventually, speakers of Middle English (the language used from the 11th to 15th centuries) conceived of the year in terms of halves: “sumer” being the warm half, and “winter” for the cold half. This two-season frame of reference dominated Western thinking as late as the 18th century.
The transitional seasons were trivial in the West, and thus “not fully lexicalized in the language” until much later, Anderson wrote. Lexicalization is the realization of an idea in a single word. In Middle English, during the 12th and 13th centuries the season we now call SPRING was referred to as “lent” or “lenten” due to the religious observance, and FALL was referred to as “harvest” due to the gathering of crops. At this point, these were generalized transitional periods, not a “season” in a calendar time-period sort of sense.
During the 14th to 15th centuries, “lenten” was gradually interspersed with an assortment of names, including “ver” (Latin for “green”), “primetemps” (French for “new time”), and the Middle English “spryngyng tyme,” directly linked from the Old English “springan” meaning “to leap, burst forth, fly up; spread, grow.” By the 17th century, “spring” had won out, and “fall” came into common usage almost certainly as a poetic complement.
As for when the four seasons became set into designated dates, that requires a major dig into the various calendars and dating systems. No time for that here!
The brisk air, hint of a breeze, lush smells of earth and foliage, and filtered beams of the rising sun casting shadows and illumination on the array of autumn colors augmented the sensations of health and joy pulsing through his body. Fresh from sleep and vivid dreams, and with the anticipation of another remarkable day with the woman he loved, Darcy almost felt as if he could fly.
~Darcy and Elizabeth: A Season of Courtship
Coffee cup in hand, Darcy relaxed into the chair and lifted his eyes to the window where sunlight glistened on the drops of dew coating the panes. The small patio outside his bedchamber had transformed from the lush, green-shrouded privacy of summer with bright colors of wisteria, lilac, and potted flowers, to an open terrace of faded blooms and semi-bare branches with clinging leaves of oranges and yellows. While perhaps not as gloriously beautiful, Darcy tended to prefer the rustic, earthy colors of autumn. For some, this season too vividly illustrated decay and death. To Darcy, autumn marked a gradual easing of life’s busyness and ushered in a period of restful, solitude. For as long as memory served, he had embraced the tranquility of winter at Pemberley. This upcoming winter, with Elizabeth in his life, anticipation for the season was multiplied tenfold. ~Darcy and Elizabeth: Hope of the Future
A History of Fall and Autumn
I will delve deeper into the etymology and history, but the end conclusion is that FALL and AUTUMN are both accepted and widely used terms for the season that comes between summer and winter. Additionally, both terms originated in Britain long before traveling across the pond, as it were, to America. Those who claim FALL is exclusively an Americanism simply because it is today more widely used in the US and rarely used in the UK are simply wrong.
AUTUMN had extensive use right from its first appearance in English writing, and with good reason. The common name for this intermediary season prior to the arrival of autumn was harvest, which was potentially confusing, since harvest can refer to both the time when harvesting crops usually happens (autumn) as well as the actual harvesting of crops. Population shifts into cities from the farmland increased the need for clarification, so harvest came to refer only to the agricultural event that occurs in that season.
They walked through the immediate surrounds, highly impressed by the finely landscaped gardens so perfectly merged with the natural vegetation by the river. Enormous trees grew haphazardly, offering shade and providing the beginning carpet of autumn leaves of red and gold that padded the cobblestone pathways. ~Loving Mr. Darcy
With the family thus settled, the last weeks of September glided by with happy serenity felt all around. The weather held clement and sunlit during the day with a slight chilling come sundown. The gradual metamorphosis about the extensive grounds began as autumn colors invaded, leaves burnished with golds and reds. The emergence of the multihued dahlia, purple toad lily, marguerite daisy, calendula, nasturtium, rosemary, and salvias provided a fresh plethora of vibrant color and fragrance to the summer-fading blooms. The numerous bushes with variegated foliage accented the already dazzling displays.
~My Dearest Mr. Darcy
As noted above in the general history of seasons, when the concept of a distinct period of weeks in between summer and winter became accepted, so did the word itself. From the beginning, AUTUMN had a unique quality that poets loved. John Keats, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Blake, Thomas Hood, Goethe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Clare are a few familiar poets who wrote poems dedicated to autumn.
William Shakespeare, the always reliable commentator on every subject, wrote the following in Sonnet 73—
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
In 1788, Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote “The Fall of the Leaf” with this opening stanza—
The lazy mist hangs from the brow of the hill,
Concealing the course of the dark-winding rill;
How languid the scenes, late so sprightly, appear!
As Autumn to Winter resigns the pale year.
Keeping to the theme, English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) also paid homage to the season in his “The Fall of the Leaf” containing this melancholy verse—
Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
Laid on it for a covering,
And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?
Burns and Rossetti chose the same title because it was a common poetic phrase for the season, as were others such as “fall of the year.” These types of descriptive phrases perfectly balanced with similar phrases for the spring season. The adverse symmetry of “spring” and “fall” as they referred to natural processes was not only logical but visually vivid. Each word brought an instant image to mind for the respective season.
“No worries, William,” said Dr. Darcy. “The cousins all send their best wishes. We spent a week on the coast, then I departed to visit friends in Dorset. I actually was only in London for four days, which is why Darcy House is undamaged. Mrs. Smyth expressed her sadness to see me depart, but I longed for Pemberley. Nothing quite compares to the autumn here.”
“I am discovering the same,” Lizzy said. “William told me the gardens were particularly lovely in the fall, and he was not exaggerating.”
“Of course,” Richard interjected. “This is your first autumn here! I had forgotten. Mr. Clark and his staff are remarkable. My parents should allow him to train their gardeners.”
“I arrived at the end of autumn past, but the rains and cold weather set in shortly thereafter so William had little opportunity to acquaint me extensively with the gardens. Except for what I could see from windows, that is.”
“What a shame,” George murmured. “Holed up inside with nothing to do all winter. How trying that must have been.” He glanced slyly at his nephew, who was approaching with whiskey decanter in hand.
“Yes,” Darcy intoned dryly. “It was terribly stressful, but we managed.” He refilled his uncle’s glass without meeting his eyes. “Of course, it was blessedly quiet. Virtually relative free until Christmas.”
“Ah, Christmas at Pemberley.” George dreamily stared into space, ignoring Darcy’s playful slur.
~My Dearest Mr. Darcy
In the above passage from My Dearest Mr. Darcy, I used AUTUMN three times and FALL once. In the passages below, from the same novel, I again used both terms. Now that I know the history of the two words fully, I can understand why it would drive a modern English reader a bit crazy. However, the fact is, these fictional scenes were taking place in the second decade of the 19th century and both words were perfectly credible in England at that time. It is unclear when, exactly, the usage of FALL lost favor in the English vocabulary in lieu of AUTUMN, but not until the end of the 1800s did it disappear entirely.
The question of how the terms diverged between the two prominent English speaking countries is easier to answer. The first obvious reason is a massive ocean divide, as well as the varied ethnicities gradually inhabiting the New World, leading to shifts in language. After America’s independence from England in the 1770s, the changes in language became more pronounced in every way, including the purposeful alterations in spelling that authors in this genre are very familiar with! Noah Webster of Webster’s Dictionary fame (1828) was an ardent spelling reformer, and while his work was couched in doing the sensible, logical thing for American uniqueness, his motivations were also political. While I saw no reference to Webster contributing to the use of FALL over AUTUMN, such pointed differentiations from “Imperialist England” were common practice among patriotic Americans and encouraged in publications. It is doubtful the English somehow “retaliated” by choosing AUTUMN over FALL as the trend in preference for the former was already being established. Rather, it is more likely that Americans chose FALL at least in part because of the English preference.
Caister Castle was located near the church, a pleasant walk over the heathland. Sparse clusters of birch trees with a thick underbrush of gorse scrub and bracken with trailing vines of wild honeysuckle and bluebells adding a pleasing fragrance to overcome the faint but persistent odor of fish. Butterflies fluttered in abundance, unperturbed by the scores of bees attacking the fall blooms. ~My Dearest Mr. Darcy
“It will begin cooling soon. Autumn is beautiful at Pemberley. Mr. Clark is a genius. He has the gardens planned so that they bloom in all seasons, but I do believe fall blooms are premiere.”
~Mr. Darcy in My Dearest Mr. Darcy
As a closing note for today, Englishman H.W. Fowler—a famous lexicographer, author of several dictionaries, and commentator on the English language—wrote an essay in 1908 that rather snobbily examines Americanism. In this essay he notes that FALL is by then distinctly American and grudgingly admits it is the superior term—
In the details of divergence, they have sometimes had the better of us. 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; and we once had as good a right to it as the Americans; but we have chosen to let the right lapse, and to use the word now is no better than larceny.
Was Mr. Fowler right? I am sure we each have our opinions on that! Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And whether preferring FALL or AUTUMN, tell us what are your favorite aspect of this transitional season. Pumpkin-spice recipes are most welcome.
FULL DISCLOSURE: This is a cross-posting of a blog I wrote for Austen Authors in September 2020, link HERE.