Fall vs. autumn: Which came first, which is best?

Illustration of a greek statue among cornucopia
Aarthi Muthukumar /Senior Staff

Related Posts

Leaves are changing color, midterms are in full swing and I’m feeling an uncontrollable urge to decorate my room with miniature gourds. Fall is here — or is it autumn? 

The Associated Press’ style guidelines have no preference, which is surprising given its penchant for highly specific rules (“OK” versus “okay,” “toward” versus “towards” and anything involving a hyphen come to mind). But on a personal level, I’ve always preferred “fall” for its simplicity. Perhaps I’m prejudiced against “autumn” because of this mildly pretentious meme; what’s wrong with naming a season after one of its most characteristic features? Is there something inherently better about a word with Latin etymology?

What the meme does get right is the regional divide between the two terms: While the names are interchangeable in the United States, in Great Britain, autumn is much more common. Both “fall” and “autumn” originated in England, with the latter predating the former by about 200 years. “Autumn” gets its roots from the Latin “autumnus,” which refers to the season we know today. While the broader usage of “fall” to describe downward-moving objects was already long-established with its Old English predecessor “feallan,” the seasonal meaning of “fall” appeared in conjunction with “spring,” in reference to “fall of the leaf” and “spring of the leaf” as ways to describe the times between summer and winter. Poets were inspired to use “fall” and “spring” in this way, adding an artistic flair to “fall” despite its seemingly simple origins. Despite “fall” being newer and arguably more evocative of the season, “autumn” rose in popularity in England during the 1600s, surpassing “fall” as the preferred term for the season. 

Around this time, English was spreading via colonization to the Americas, leading to the regional divide we observe today. “Autumn” was supposedly more popular at first in the British American colonies, with “fall” not being recorded as a term for a season until Samuel Johnson’s “Dictionary of the English Language” was published in 1755. For revolutionary reasons or otherwise, the two nations diverged, with the British overwhelmingly favoring “autumn” while Americans favored “fall,” a trend that has continued to this day.

This all begs the question: Which of these terms should you use? There is no definitive answer. If you observe daylight savings time, “fall” fits excellently into the mnemonic “fall back, spring forward” to remember when each type of time change occurs. If you prefer to give your English a British flair, consider sprinkling in “autumn” in the next few months.

If you’re deeply passionate about using the oldest, most traditional name for the season — or maybe just about standing out from everyone else — you’ll find that you shouldn’t use either: The word “harvest” predates both terms. In fact, perhaps “harvest” is the best compromise we have in this debate since it incorporates the long history of “autumn” as well as the descriptiveness of “fall.” 

For what it’s worth, I’ll continue to use “fall” in my daily life: Not only is it the quickest to say and write, but its poetic origins might also help me romanticize the season more as we get into the depths of the fall semester. It is a season of change, though, so it might be worthwhile to branch out into variations you hadn’t used much before. No matter which term you end up favoring, make sure not to pass judgment on others for their preferred seasonal name; all are equally brilliant ways to describe the time of crisp air, crunchy leaves and back-to-school dread we all share.

Noah Tran is an arts copy chief. Contact him at [email protected].