Q&A: Autumn vs fall

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking the fall…

Q: Hi AWC, don’t you just love this time of year?

A: Careful.

Q: Why?

A: Well we’re in Australia, but it might be confusing for anyone currently reading this in the Northern Hemisphere. This also appears on our blog, so technically someone could be reading this at any time in the future.

Q: Wow, you must be so much fun at parties.

A: Sorry.

Q: Can I at least say, “I love Autumn”?

A: Sure, that works. Although, seasons don’t need capital letters.

Q: Really? Even Spring?

A: Yep. Even spring. There are some poetic exceptions, which we’ve discussed before in this chat here.

Q: So, why do WE call it “autumn”, yet Americans call it “fall”?

A: Ahhhh, this old chestnut…

Q: Yes, it is a common question.

A: What? No, sorry, we just found an old chestnut on the ground. Common at this time of year…

Q: Oh okay. So, can you explain why this season gets two names?

A: Well, up until the 16th century, this season wasn’t known by either of them. It was called “harvest” – for obvious reasons. “Autumpne” had turned up a few centuries earlier, from the Old French word “automne” and Latin “auctumnus” – possibly linked to the month of August, but the etymology gets a bit sketchy with its origin story.

Q: A bit like Wonder Woman’s origin story. Always changing that one.

A: Um, sure. Anyway, some of the base words that fed into “autumn” meant “to increase” and “to dry up” – both of which could be spun into some kind of harvest definition fairly easily. 

Q: So you mentioned that it only started being used in the 16th century?

A: It was probably in use before that, but this is when it became the dominant word for the season. The 1500s in general saw an increased interest in the seasons.

Q: They were quite well seasoned then?

A: Yes, very good.

Q: Season’s greetings!

A: Please stop now.

Q: Okay.

A: It was a time when people were starting to place more emphasis on the idea of a year having four distinct seasons (rather than just two main ones, winter and summer, with harvest tacked on the end). But just as “autumn” was flexing its lexical muscle, along came the terms “spring of the leaf” and “fall of the leaf” – hand-in hand.

Q: Well, this is awkward.

A: Yes. Now there were two competing suitors for harvest’s attention – “fall of the leaf” and “autumn”.

Q: OMG, it’s just like The Bachelor! Except instead of giving out roses, it’s probably stalks of barley or something.

A: Haha, yep. When the British arrived in America less than a century later, they actually took both “autumn” and the now-shortened “fall” with them. However, by the 18th century, America had fallen for “fall” – mirroring other anti-French word and spelling choices of the time.

Q: I guess they had a lot of national pride by then. And you know what they say – “pride cometh before the fall”…

A: Haha. Yes it doeseth.

Q: And meanwhile, Britain went with autumn?

A: Yes, it had already taken hold by the 1600s and although many (especially lovers of a good pun) saw “fall” as the superior word, language rarely listens to reason. 

Q: So, “fall” is just an American thing then?

A: Yep. The rest of the world has doubled down on “autumn” in the centuries since – labelling “fall” purely as an Americanism. However, while “fall” is most popular in the USA and Canada, both terms are used in these places.

Q: Wow. A rare occasion when America has to juggle both words, while the rest of the world is happy with just one!

A: That’s true – it’s usually the other way around. In America these days, “fall” is still the more popular term for the pumpkin-spice latte sipping season, however “autumn” is readily used in more formal situations. 

Q: So if I’m writing for an American audience, which should I use?

A: It’s up to you. If an American character is speaking, they’ll likely use “fall” – but for general prose, you’ll have no trouble being understood with “autumn”.

Q: Well, thanks – this chat did not “fall” short. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and roll around in a pile of dead leaves.

A: We’ll “leave” you to it…


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