Autumn, and why do Americans Call It “Fall”?

The word “Autumn” for the name of the season that follows Summer and precedes Winter; has not always been universal.

Before about the time of Shakespeare (the 16th century) in Europe, the season that we refer to as autumn was normally called “Harvest” as it the time of year when crops from the summer season ripened, matured, and were eventually harvested. As more of the population gradually but inexorably moved from working the land to living in towns, the word “Harvest” began to refer only to the actual activity of reaping crops, and “Autumn”, as well as “Fall”, began to replace it. (Despite many folk etymologies to the contrary; the term “Fall” is not of specifically-American origin).

The word “Autumn” comes from the ancient Etruscan root autu — meaning the passing of the year. It was borrowed by the neighbouring Romans and became the Latin word autumnus which became the Old French word autompne (automne in modern French) or autumpne in Middle English being later returned to the original Latin. In the Medieval period its occasional use is from the 12th century and by the 16th century, it was in common use.

Many people typically think of “Fall” as the North American version of the word “Autumn”. It was supposedly related to the first European colonialists in the new World seeing leaves falling-off deciduous trees as the season changed, but it was actually in widespread usage in England until relatively recently. Originally a shortening of the phrase “Fall of the Leaf”, the phrase was common in England in the 17th century and taken by the Puritans settlers to their new colonies in the Americas.

When does Autumn Start?

In Australia, the season of Autumn is generally marked from March 1 until May 31, but in many European countries it only starts from the time of the autumn equinox, on or about September 22 (March 22 in the southern hemisphere) at which time the length of day and night are equally 12 hours long. Under this convention; Winter would start on June 22; Spring would start on September 22; and Summer on December 22 (around the time of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia on which Christmas is supposedly-based).

Solstices and equinoxes are the astronomical transition points between the seasons and mark key stages in the earth’s cycle. In a year there are two equinoxes (spring and autumn, when the day and night are roughly equal lengths) and two solstices (summer, the longest day and winter, the shortest day). These correlate to different points in the earth’s orbit around the sun combined with the earth’s tilting rotation.

Equinoxes get their name from the Latin for “equal night,” and are the only two points in the year when the equator is the closest part of Earth to the sun and leads to a day and night of the same length. For six months of the year, either the northern or southern hemisphere is pointing slightly towards the sun because of the 23.5-degree tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis in relation to its orbit. This brings the warmer temperatures of Spring and Summer.

The autumnal and spring equinoxes mark the point when the two hemispheres swap over. This is what creates the differences in seasons that we experience. It’s all about where the earth is in its orbit around the sun, the 23.5 degree tilt and how far north or south we are from the earth’s equator.

The meteorological calendar is fixed however and begins on March 1 which splits the year into four seasons of three full months each based on the Gregorian calendar. This makes it easier to compare seasonal and monthly statistics. The variation caused by the earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun can be quite large between 89 and 93 days. These variations in season length and season start would make it very difficult to consistently compare climatological statistics for a particular season from one year to the next. And so, the meteorological seasons were born.

There is a third definition of the start of autumn. It’s more fluid and comes from the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events known as phenology. That is, keeping track of natural events through the year. The start of autumn in this way is dictated not by a set date or a single event, but a variety of changes in the natural world, such as the tinting of the trees, the ripening of autumn fruits and the movement of migrating birds. This a much more variable definition of when the seasons start, but also easy to see, based on what’s happening in that specific year.

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