The Etymology of ‘fall’ and ‘autumn’

Why Americans say fall, and not autumn like in the UK was something I wondered about when I was young. I always assumed that, like the UK, autumn must be the older, more archaic word, while the literal sounding fall must be a much younger creation. :fallen_leaf:

I was wrong. Fall is as old as autumn, and the reason we use different words is quite worth discovering. Before we get there though, you should know that before the 16th century neither was in use in Great Britain, and that the word used for the third season of the year was harvest. It derives from the Old English hærfest, and is related to the German word for autumn ‘Herbst’.

As people began moving into cities and towns, leaving their rural ways of life behind them, the word harvest began to lose its meaning as a season, and instead to describe the time and process of gathering crops. It was at this time that autumn, which was borrowed from French, and fall which likely started life as the phrase ‘fall of the leaf’ came into common parlance.

And so the two words were, for a few hundred years, both in common use. The people who migrated from Britain to new lands in the west, however, seemed to have a preference for one over the other, and amongst the people who stayed in the old country fall fell out of use entirely.

Fall stopped being used because that’s what happens to words sometimes. Harvest has not been a season for a long time. Another word for autumn in in the North-east of England was backend, and one could describe the darkening autumn days as being a bit backendish. That too has faded from use. Probably forever.

Do you know any words that were once common, but are not used anymore? Or perhaps you know of a word that has been brought back and given a second lease of life.


An old word that I think should have a comeback is overmorrow. As one might have guessed, it means ‘the day after tomorrow’. I hope it can one day replace the rather ungraceful form we use now and become as normal as übermorgen in German :stuck_out_tongue: