Autumn leaves, autumn sneeze, fall breeze and fall trees. Is it most accurate to say Sept. 22 is the start of fall or autumn?
Both “autumn” and “fall” originated from Britain, according to Merriam-Webster. “Autumn,” however, was the first of the pumpkin spice season names to be invented back in the 1300s, originating from the Latin word “autumnus.” It would take 300 years to “fall” to come into the picture.
After many poets began using the phrase “the fall of the leaves,” the word itself became associated with the season during the 1600s. As the English empire grew during this time period, so did its language. Eventually, the word “fall” made its way to the New World.
“To put it more pretentiously, there was always something transient, unstable, mysterious, emotionally undefined about autumn and fall, unlike the other seasons which are so well defined,” said Tony Thorne, lexicographer and language consultant at King’s College London. “Maybe that’s why people could not easily decide on one permanent name throughout our history.”
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The word “autumn” emigrated to America and simply changed to “fall,” like many other words that got mixed during the travel and independence of the US “Jumper” in Britain, for example, is what “sweater” means in America.
Which term is used largely depends on whether the person is speaking British English or American English. While both are used throughout the United States, “fall” has become the most popular term. From the 1800s to the present, “autumn” has been more popular in Britain and the opposite can be said for America, according to Writing Explained.
“Some think that it sounds more simple and honest and rustic, unlike the more formal ‘autumn’, some think that independent Americans wanted to consciously distance themselves from Colonial British ways of speaking,” Thorne said.
There is no real answer to why “fall” became so popular with Americans, but the main difference is that it is the less proper way of saying the “autumn” season has arrived. You may get a weird look or two if you say “autumn” over “fall” in the US, but both accurately describe the popular season.
Wondering about the difference between an equinox and a solstice this autumn? Equinoxes occur in September and March, marking the beginning of autumn and spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Solstices are in December and June, marking the beginning of winter and summer.
Contributing: Doyle Rice, Marina Pitofsky
A version of this story was first published in 2021.