The etymology of fall

Sitemgr Photo 20405

By Mimi Vanderhaven

The time of year that we call “fall” or “autumn” was historically referred to as harvest, which reflects our language’s agrarian roots. It’s the time when our ancestors gathered their crops to store for the long winter to come. Depending on your latitude, harvest ran somewhere from August to November. 

The term “harvest” comes from the Proto-Germanic harbitas, which is also the source of the Old Saxon hervist, Old Frisian and Dutch herfst, German herbst and Old Norse haust, meaning “to gather or pluck.”

In the old days, darling, under the very real threat of starving to death during winter, plucking and gathering were full-time jobs.

In the early 17th century as more people left their farms and began moving into cities, the word “harvest” fell out of use in favor of the poetically pleasing, “fall of the leaf.” 

The word “fall” comes from the Old English feallan, which means, “to drop from a height, fail, decay, die.” Over time, of course, the phrase “fall of the leaf” was shortened simply to “fall.”

Etymologists don’t seem to agree on the origins of the word “autumn.” But Mimi’s bet is that it was influenced by the Latin auctus (“enriched, enlarged, ample”), referring to the bounty of fall harvest, which also helped give rise to the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Chaucer used the word “autumn” as early as the 1300s and Shakespeare used it often, including in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: 

“…the spring, the summer, the childing autumn, angry winter…”

Today, the American English used in Northeast Ohio prefers the word “fall” while British English prefers “autumn.” Oh, those Brits.

“Spring” and “fall” likely grew in popularity because of how they complement each other. New buds “spring” forth in the spring and the resulting leaves “fall” off in the fall. In addition, both are nice reminders of how to adjust our clocks twice a year: “spring forward” and “fall back.”

If we Americans used “autumn,” we might forget the saying and be an hour early everywhere we went.

Categories: Smart Living