Logo

Etymology
Listen in RealAudio
Email your weather question

Hi, I'm Bryan Yeaton, host of The Weather Notebook. Strange as it seems, the word Fall, in fact, traces it roots to falling leaves. Commentator Zhenya Gallon tells us more.

Earth's changing seasons always make me want to take the long view of nature and humanity like the history of the English words that define this time of year, autumn, harvest time, fall.

Right around September 22nd, Earth's axis is close to vertical in its orbit 'round the Sun, bringing equal hours of day and night to the planet. From then until the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere leans further and further away from the Sun. Nights grow longer, days grow cooler.

Linguists have traced the English word harvest and its Latin, Greek, and Germanic relatives 8,000 years back to an Indo-European root, *karp- , to pluck or gather. By the 16th century, the age of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, harvest meant the activity more than the season. So where did the other names for harvest time come from?

School children will tell you it's called fall because the leaves are falling. They're right! Anglo Saxons kept this word of ancient German origin even after the Normans invaded England in 1066. The French-speaking Normans brought autompne with them. That word came from Latin, autumnus, which the Romans probably borrowed from the ancient Etruscans.

Both autumn and fall were in use when English colonists set sail for the New World. Autumn won out in England, but in North America we still call it fall, like the Elizabethans did.

As the leaves fall into my yard, the Colorado wind does more raking than I do. That's fine with me, because I love the changing light and changing colors, whatever you call it.

Zhenya Gallon jumps in leaf piles in Boulder, Colorado. The Weather Notebook is a production of the Mount Washington Observatory and supported by Subaru, the beauty of all wheel drive.