The Grammarphobia Blog

Falling in love again

Q: Why do we “fall” in love, “fall” into sin, “fall” apart, “fall” asleep, “fall” ill, “fall” in or out with someone? In other words, what’s with all the falling?

A: “Fall” is an ancient verb that’s been used figuratively for many centuries, often with the sense of sinking into some condition or state. And if we didn’t have these less literal uses of the word, English would be a poorer language.

The original and literal meaning of the verb, which has been recorded in writing since the 800s, is to “descend freely” or “drop from a high or relatively high position,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

One of the OED’s earliest examples is from Crist III, the third part of an anonymous Old English religious poem about the Second Coming. The reference here is to the Last Judgment: “Sceolon rathe feallan on grimne grund” (“They shall fall rapidly into the grim abyss”). 

But later, people began using “fall” in more inventive ways. Often these new meanings involved wrongdoing—that is, descending into evil.

In the 1100s, to “fall” could mean to sin or yield to temptation. This sense of the word was also used in phrases, like “fall into sin,” which was soon followed by “fall into error,” “fall into idolatry,” “fall into mistakes,” and “fall among thieves.”

In the 1200s and 1300s, writers began using “fall” to describe the destruction of walls, buildings, and cities, as in “is falle Babilon” (Babylon is fallen).

The later expression “fall to pieces” (1600s) came to mean “break into fragments” or disintegrate. And a couple of centuries after that, an overthrown empire or government was said to “fall.” 

You’ve probably noticed that negative senses of the word outnumber positive ones.

Since the 1300s, to “fall on” an enemy has meant to attack. Fear, death, disease, vengeance, and misfortune have been “falling” on people since the Middle Ages.

Not surprisingly, disappointment or sadness makes a person’s face “fall,” a usage traceable to the 1300s and one that the OED says was “originally a Hebraism.”

And it was around the 1600s that English speakers adopted the notion that a duty, a burden, an expense, a responsibility, or a loss (less frequently, a gain) could “fall on” or “fall to” a person. 

But other figurative meanings aren’t quite as grim—they’re either positive or neutral. And there are so many that we won’t even try to mention them all.

Since around 1000, meteorological events like rain, hail, lightning, and thunder have been said to “fall” from the heavens. A bit later, people began speaking of evening, night, seasons, and shadows as “falling.”

Sometimes to “fall” means merely to lessen or subside, as with the volume of music (1500s), the price of something (1500s), or the temperature (1800s). 

Some figurative uses of “fall” have to do with the senses. Sounds “fall” upon the ear, just as sights “fall” upon the eye (both 1800s). And when people speak, we say that words “fall” from their lips or tongues (1700s).

All kinds of figurative usages have to do with passing, perhaps suddenly or accidentally, into a certain state or condition.

This is how we got “fall to sleep” (1200s) and “fall asleep” (1300s); “fall sick” (1400s); “fall into favor,” “fall in love,” and “fall into trouble,” meaning to get pregnant (all 1500s); “fall lame,” “fall ill,” and “fall back,” meaning to retreat (all 1600s); “fall vacant,” “fall silent,” and “fall flat,” meaning to prove uninteresting or ineffective (all 1800s).

To “fall out” (also “fall out with”) has meant to quarrel or disagree since the 1500s. And a century or so later, people began using “fall in with” to mean agree, concur, or share the views of.

To “fall short of” has meant to fail in some objective since the 1500s, the OED says. And “fall in,” meaning to get into line in a military sense, came into use in the 18th century.

More recently, “to fall for” has meant to be taken in or carried away by, a usage the OED dates from 1903.

“Fall apart” has been used since the 1600s in the sense of “to separate” or “to go separate ways,” the OED says.

But the use of “fall apart” to mean “break up” or “collapse” was first recorded in the mid-1700s, and a still newer meaning—to have a nervous breakdown, more or less—is from the 1930s.

And we’ll stop here, before we “fall behind” (1500s) in our other work! But if you want to read more, we had a post some time ago about why Americans have two words for “autumn” while the British have only one.

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