Monday, October 21, 2019

Autumn or Fall?

Fall Leaves in Prague

Remember the classic love song from Camelot?
If I Ever I Would Leave You:

But if I'd ever leave you,
It couldn't be in autumn.
How I'd leave in autumn
I never will know.
I've seen how you sparkle
When fall nips the air.
I know you in autumn
And I must be there.

by American lyricist
Alan Jay Lerner (1918 – 1986)

One thing I have always liked about this particular stanza is the ease with which it moves from autumn to fall and back again. Two words, same season, no confusion. In addition to checking out the dictionary, here is an interesting explanation for our doubly named season:
The persistence of two terms for the third season in the United States, while somewhat of a mystery, may have something to do with the spread of English to the American continent at the very epoch when "fall" began jockeying for position with "autumn": the 17th century. At that time, both terms were adopted stateside, and the younger, more poetic "fall" gained the upper hand. Back in Britain, however, "autumn" won out. The continued acceptance of "autumn" in the United States may reflect the influence, or at least the proximity, of English culture and literature.

According to Slate, British lexicographers begrudgingly admit that the United States got the better end of the stick. In "The King's English" (1908), H.W. Fowler wrote, "Fall is better on the merits than autumn, in every way: it is short, Saxon (like the other three season names), picturesque; it reveals its derivation to every one who uses it, not to the scholar only, like autumn."

~from Natalie Wolchover at
Along the same lines, Bill Bryson writes that "Other words and expressions that were common in Elizabethan England that died in England were fall as a synonym for autumn" (The Mother Tongue, 171) -- due most likely to a frankophile preference for French over English. Likewise, in Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, Bryson observes:
Where they could, however, the first colonists stuck doggedly to the words of the Old World. They preserved words with the diligence of archivists. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of English terms that would later perish from neglect in their homeland live on in America thanks to the essentially conservative nature of the early colonists.

Fall for autumn is perhaps the best known. It was a relatively new word at the time of the Pilgrims--its first use in English was recorded in 1545--but it remained in common use in England until the second half of the nineteenth century. Why it died out there when it did is unknown

Personally, I'm betting on francophonism!
Most oddly, in the movie In America (loveable in every other way), the mother (portrayed by Samantha Morton) goes out of her way to explain to her little daughter (Sarah Bolger) that, unlike the Irish, Americans don't understand the word autumn because in America they only say fall. What? Not only is this throwaway comment completely extraneous to the plot of the movie, but it is also highly inaccurate. Sounds to me like the notion of some misguided Anglophiles who underestimate the breadth and flexibility of American English. And who, apparently, never listened to the lyrics of Camelot or sang along with "If Ever I Would Leave You" -- or read my brother's essay!

Autumn Evening in Prague

And then we have scones vs "skawns"!

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