The Grammarphobia Blog

Do leaves turn in autumn or fall?

Q: I was reminded recently of a curiosity with respect to the names of the four seasons. Despite English’s large dictionary, there are no synonyms for “spring,” “winter,” or “summer.” Why does “autumn” alone have a synonym? That’s today’s conundrum.

A: We have two words (“autumn” and “fall”) for this season because they came into English from two different sources and we kept both – at least we Americans did.

The word “fall” comes from Old English and has been part of the language since the ninth century, though it wasn’t used to mean the season until the 16th century.

This usage of “fall” made its first appearance in print in a 1545 book on archery: “Spring tyme, Somer, faule of the leafe, and winter.”

“Autumn,” which comes ultimately from the Latin autumnus, was borrowed into English from Old French in the 14th century.

Americans use both words, as the British once did. But the Brits dropped “fall” along the way. It’s interesting that they kept the French borrowing but discarded the Anglo-Saxon one.

My husband and I have a whole chapter on British-vs.-American English in our new book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, which is coming out on May 5.

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