This article originally appeared in the fall/autumn of 2012. We’ve reprinted the post for the first day of the season, below.
It’s the first week of fall—or perhaps I should say “autumn.” How did autumn become the only season with two names?
Before it was autumn and fall, it was harvest. While the modern names of winter and summer have been around for more than 1,000 years, the names of fall and spring are more recent—and less constant. This is partly because the two seasons were long viewed as secondary to summer and winter. As late as the 18th century, English speakers were less likely to think of the year as having four seasons, focusing instead on the coldest and warmest portions of the year. Even when they spoke of fall, they couldn’t agree when, exactly, it took place. In the 17th and 18th centuries, dictionaries by both Thomas Blount and Samuel Johnson noted that some thought that fall began in August and ended in November, while others contested that it began in September (at the equinox) and ended in December (with the solstice).
Both spring and autumn used to go by different names. In the 12th and 13th centuries, spring was called lent or lenten, while fall was called harvest. In the 14th century things got a little chaotic. Lenten disappeared around the beginning of the 1300s, and the later lent similarly vanished only a few decades later. (It survives, of course, as the name for a religious observance.) By the end of the 14th century there was no firm word for springtime: People referred to it as part of summer, they used Latin (ver) or French (primetemps), or they just made up new phrases. Harvest as a word to mean not just “a time of reaping” but also, even for city folk, “the third season of the year” lasted longer. But it was joined by autumn—a word borrowed from the French—by the 16th century.
Spring and fall likely gained popularity in conjunction with each other. They each initially appeared in the 16th century as spring of the leaf and fall of the leaf, respectively. The two complemented each other nicely and were soon shortened to the more succinct fall and spring, with the longer phrases disappearing over the next few hundred years.
It’s a bit of a mystery why the superfluous autumn persists while analogous words like primetemps and ver have fallen out of use, but it may have something to do with the Atlantic Ocean. The rise of autumn and the appearance of fall happened around the same time as the British arrival on the American continent, and it’s there that the latter really caught on. In fact one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citations of fall comes from Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the first English explorers of North America: In his poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” he uses the word to contrast with spring. Fall hasn’t ever had quite as much currency in the United Kingdom as it has stateside—even though some Brits concede that North Americans have the superior term. In The King’s English, the Fowler brothers counseled against Americanisms, but expressed envy over fall:
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.
However, in the end the Fowlers warned that it was too late. “We once had as good a right to it as the Americans,” they wrote, “but we have chosen to let the right lapse, and to use the word now is no better than larceny.”
Thanks to Ben Zimmer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com.