“Fall” or “Autumn”?

Ah, fall. It’s upon us. Summer seems long gone, though it was only a moment ago. Everything is different now—the morning light, a bit meeker; the days, a bit shorter; the air, a bit harsher. It’s a time for scarves, thicker socks, and stronger coffee. And taking long walks at dusk, the wind blowing eddies of leaves at your feet. And feeling like a kid! I haven’t been a student for a while, but I still feel those back-to-school blues in the depths of my stomach. I suspect it’s something that never really goes away.

Oh, by the way, do you say “fall” or “autumn”? If you’re an American, you likely say the former; if you speak British English, it is almost certain you use the latter exclusively. Does it make a difference? I happen to think both are lovely words, so I use both, though without any conscious reason or consistency.

It does seem to make a difference to many of our friends across the pond. In my experience, Britons are more vocally arrogant about their language than Americans. This is because British English has been around longer than its American counterpart, so its speakers think it more pure, original, and authentic, even if they don’t say so explicitly. But you can tell by the way they often express this strange exasperation that American usage even exists. I have been sneered at for saying “aluminum” (which is, actually, what Sir Humphrey Davy originally called the element) rather than the British preference, “aluminium.” I also once heard an Englishman ask, again with that strange exasperation, “Why do Americans say ‘fall’ instead of ‘autumn’?” That we are speaking two different versions of a language evidently didn’t occur to him. The question, of course, was essentially rhetorical: he wanted it to be known that he thought his language superior to my own.

As I said, I have nothing against “autumn.” It’s a fine word, to be sure. I am told by various etymological sources that it was first used by Chaucer in the late 14th century. (The word ultimately derives from the Latin autumnus.) “Fall” has its own respectable tradition, however. It first appeared in the mid-16th century—an abbreviation of the phrase “fall of the leaf.” The mid-16th century is long before the emergence of American English, so technically “fall” is of British origin, even if it is no longer used on that side of the Atlantic. Apart from having lovely biblical and moral undertones, “fall” has been used by renowned writers for several centuries. One example is the British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote the beautiful 1880 poem “Spring and Fall.”

So if I had to answer that rather proud English gentleman again today, I would reply, “If it’s good enough for one of your country’s best Victorian poets, it’s good enough for me.”

P.S. – Be sure to read my autumnal poem “Central Park, October 2011,” published exclusively on this humble website.

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