Wrong Word Wednesday Special: “Fall” vs “Autumn”

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What season are we in now? Depending on the country you were born in if English is your first language, or which “version” of English you learnt as a second language, you will give one of two words: autumn (if you are British, Australian or from New Zealand) or fall (if you are American; Canadians I understand use the two interchangeably).

Today, these are your only two options. If you were to use harvest, most people would know what you mean but today that is used as a verb (to harvest) or as a noun for religious festival (Harvest Festivals are still common CofE services at this time of yaer). Nobody would expect you to use “harvest” to refer to the season because though farmers still schedule their working year around the seasons, few of the rest of us need to do so.

Many see fall as distinctly American and autumn as distinctly British and it is one of those words you must change in your text if you are a Brit writing a book set in the US or vice versa. Where did they come from and why does it matter?

From a functional perspective, fall makes sense as a contrast to spring and the two words were used interchangeably during the colonial period. Yet once the colonies expanded, this is where the language split along with many other words that are different today between the two countries. The difference for Canada is that it largely remained British colonial land for so long after its neighbour to the south claimed its independence and went its own way. Australia and New Zealand maintained links to Britain and still with strong ties to the Commonwealth, this meant that they too prefer autumn.

From the perspective of the Anglo-Saxon root of many words in English (because all other seasons: spring, summer and winter are also Anglo-Saxon in origin), fall wins hands down again. Yet we know that function is not the only attribute of the English language. If it was more concerned with function, then we wouldn’t have superfluous letters, silent letters or non-phonetic spellings. No, it is a hybrid language of several German dialects, of Norse, of French and of Latin. My preference for autumn is not just based on my country of birth, but also because I think it sounds nice as a word and autumn has a magic of its own so in some ways it deserves to stand out.

Does anybody in the US prefer autumn? Is it a regional thing there or is fall ubiquitous? And does anybody in Britain prefer fall?

For more information, Slate has an interesting article on the history of the two words.

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16 thoughts on “Wrong Word Wednesday Special: “Fall” vs “Autumn”

    1. Some British-English terms do sound strange coming from an American and sometimes what we call “Americanisms” don’t sound right coming from Brits, Australians or New Zealanders.

      It’s strange, we really are two countries divided by a common language!

  1. I’ve heard Autumn and Fall used interchangeably here in the US (with none of the strange looks or thoughts of pretentiousness). I am betting there is some regional variations on this matter (I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and have spent about 1/3 of my life in New England). Also, Leaf-Peeper Season, but that (I believe) is a fairly Northern-New-England Specific designation for a subset of Autumn/Fall. I use Fall and Autumn interchangeably myself.

      1. It’s because of the high tourist-trade (and traffic jams) of all these people from other states coming up to the quiet towns of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine to see the fall foliage in it’s beauty. My undergrad years were spent on a small campus in the hills of Southern Vermont and it was not unusual to get stuck in traffic jams that were simply because people were going slow around the curves and nearly stopping in the middle of the road in order to gaze at the colors.

  2. Harvest doesn’t directly correlate with autumn, it begins on August 1st and ends in October… At least in rural Shropshire where I grew up.
    I have a question:
    Does fall have an adjective or do Americans just use autumnal?

    1. Sorry, I thought I explained. It turns out that “harvest” was once used to refer to Autumn some time in the medieval period. Nowadays of course it does mean the act and the period of harvesting.

      1. Ah, obviously I did not make myself clear…
        As far as I’m aware (and despite what Wikipedia may claim) Harvest was never a synonym for fall/autumn, but it can appear that way. Harvest was one of the ‘tides’ used in the medieval and inherited from the Celtic and Brythonic seasons, and began in August. It has always started on the first of August first as a festival to Lugh and later renamed as Lammas, and ended at Samhain/Halloween. Later (1700s or so) autumn/fall was defined as starting on September 1st and later still (1800s I think) September 21st.
        In rural Shropshire we used to use ‘harvest’ (or at least the old fellas did 30 years ago) as a time of year, it follows Summer and turns into Autumn after Halloween until Christmas, and is counted as one of six ‘seasons’ which include Lent before spring.
        I once got into a long argument with one of them about the number of seasons…
        Hope that explains what I meant.

      2. Excellent, thanks for clarifying! Don’t think I got it from wiki, may have been The Slate but I suppose it is possible with modern journalism methods that that’s precisely where they got it from 🙂

  3. Harvest comes from the Anglo Saxon origin. In old German Herbist, old Dutch harvest or old English hærfest, these words are used for the time of year before winter, to get the crops from the fields. In modern times (last 500 years)used for the period between 21-09 and 21-12. The modern English languages disconnected the word harvest from this period and only used it for the “oogst” as a verb. So new words needed to be found, each in their own culture (England vs. USA): fall (as a reference to falling leaves and dying before winter) and autumn (from the french / latin autompne / autumnus)

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