After a scorching summer, the changing of the seasons is a welcome event. The leaves change, the apples ripen and the Halloween decorations go up. It’s finally autumn. Or, maybe you call it fall. You may have used them interchangeably your whole life, but they raise the question: what’s the difference between fall and autumn?
It turns out, it’s another one of those American versus British English phenomena. Americans may say “fall” because it’s simpler, but the Brits across the pond are loyal to “autumn” because it is more regal and Latin. Or at least, that’s one hypothesis. The story of how the seasons got their names is, like the brilliant tapestry of colors spread across the forests of New England in October, a bit complex.
How The Seasons Got Their Names
Of the four seasons, only summer and winter have stayed consistent throughout the history of the English language. Summer comes from the Old English sumor and winter from the Old English winter, and both of them can be traced all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. The two have gone through a few superficial changes, but have been around in some form for thousands of years.
This stability is largely because “winter” and “summer” are more stable concepts than the other two seasons. There’s no inherent reason to divide the year into four, necessarily. Parts of Australia mark only two seasons (dry and wet), and the Hindu calendar in India marks six. At the least, though, people throughout history were likely to label the hottest months and the coldest months on the calendar.
If the other two seasons had been as consistent as summer and winter, they might be named “lent” and “harvest” today. The Old English word for spring was lencten, which has been preserved by the Christian religion in their Lenten season, held between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday every spring. And while the Old English hærfest certainly is still part of the language as “harvest,” it no longer refers to the season (unless, perhaps, you’re a farmer). The names fall and spring both derived from similar phrases that were used starting in the early 16th century: “fall of the leaf” and “spring of the leaf.” These were shortened to their respective season names.
“Autumn” is, surprisingly, a newer addition to the English language when compared to “fall.” It wasn’t until the 17th century that British English started using “autumn” more than “fall,” and it’s taken from the French automne, which itself goes back to the Latin autumnus. Autumn and fall did coexist on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for a while, though.
Why Do Americans Prefer ‘Fall’?
It’s pretty hard to point to a reason why fall overtook autumn in the United States (and vice versa in England). That hasn’t stopped people from trying, however. Take the Twitter user @Turbo_Jimmy, who seems to be the first person to have posted this joke:
UK: We call it Autumn, from the Old French word ‘autompne’ [sic] and the Latin ‘autumnus.’
USA: WE CALL IT FALL BECAUSE LEAF FALL DOWN.
This is, as we established in the previous section, not very accurate, and it plays into stereotypes of the United Kingdom speaking prim and proper English, while the United States speaks rough and tumble English. Those stereotypes do have some basis in reality; some Brits take great pride in speaking the Queen’s English, while Americans from Noah Webster on have preferred plain-spokenness. Still, generalizations are (generally) never accurate, and there’s really no reason why “autumn” should be considered fancier than “fall” simply because it has more letters and a rare “mn” ending.
More likely, the reason the United States chose “fall” as its word for the season between summer and winter is chance. People love to ascribe folk etymologies and stereotypical reasoning to cases like these, but language is often more fickle than we expect it to be.
Fall And Autumn In Other Languages
The divide between seasonal names is specific to English. Looking at other languages, they’ve all settled on one. And as you can see, many of them look a lot like either “autumn” or “harvest.”
Spanish — el otoño
Danish — efterår
Dutch — de herfst
French — l’automne
German — der Herbst
Indonesian — music gugur
Italian — l’autunno
Swedish — høst
Polish — jesień
Portuguese — o outono
Russian — осень
Swedish — en höst
Turkish — sonbahar