Autumn vs. Fall

Why do we have two English terms for this, and only this, season? Are Americans to blame? Here’s what you should know.

Though they both mean exactly the same thing, fall is widely used in America and Canada, while autumn is the preferred term in the UK and its Commonwealth. You might assume that the Americans, who have a tendency to simplify the English language (e.g. lite, nite, thru, and the near abolishment of adverbs), created “fall” because the ending of the word autumn rubs them the wrong way. You would be wrong.

First, know that the Latin word for the season is autumnus, which suggests autumn is the original English term for the season. The term autumn appears in literature from the Middle English period (Geoffrey Chaucer, 1343-1400) through to Elizabethan English (Shakespeare, 1654-1616) and beyond. It wasn’t until the 1600s that the term “fall” came into vogue to name the season with the falling of the leaves. From there it was just a question of preference. In 1755, Samuel Johnson’s highly influential Dictionary of the English Language included the word autumn, sealing its fate in England. Over in America, the trend went the other way.

Can’t decide which is for you? All other things being equal, fall has a slight advantage in that you can spring forward and fall back one hour for daylight savings, but you can’t autumn in either direction.

Interesting aside: season names are not capitalized as they are not proper nouns. Exceptions: when they are part of proper noun phrase, like Summer Olympics and Fall Semester, or when used in titles, e.g. “Winter Fashion: What You Need To Know” and the name of this chapter.

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