It was last month that the lamentations began: “I can’t believe summer is almost over.” Now that it is September and 84 degrees in central Ohio, many look to Labor Day weekend as the last hurrah of summer.
That has more to do with the school schedule than climate. For astronomers, summer stretches between the equinoxes, vernal and autumnal. For those in the northern hemisphere, which includes central Ohio, that means we don’t need to stop calling it summer until Sept. 23, at 8:20 a.m. to be specific.
In the southern hemisphere, Sept. 23 is the start of the vernal equinox; Sept. 22 is the last day of winter.
Fall and autumn are synonyms for the season, with the latter probably more fun to say and spell, but the former more common in North America. Fall is considered an Americanism to some British English speakers, but it originated in England only to die out there while North Americans embraced it.
We’ve been falling in English since the ninth century. The word might come from the Latin fallĕre, meaning to deceive, but of course the concept of deception is unlikely to be older than the concept of falling. Fall certainly comes to English through German, and the noun form to describe the act of falling or having fallen soon followed. Fall for autumn is traced to the phrase fall of the leaf in the 16th century. In 1596, Sir Walter Raleigh gave us:
The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall.
Despite its British pedigree, fall faded, and autumn became the preferred name for the season. A search for “fall colours” among British-published books in Google’s online corpus shows the phrase is just not used. U.S.-published books show a strong preference for “fall colors” over “autumn colors.”
A note in the Oxford English Dictionary says of fall:
In N. America the ordinary name for autumn; in England now rare in literary use, though found in some dialects; spring and fall, the fall of the year, are, however, in fairly common use.
The word autumn, from the Latin autumnus, appears in Chaucer, who tells us “Autumn comes again heavy of apples” in the 14th century.
The season gives us all an excuse to use the wonderful adjective autumnal, which is much more fun to say than fall-like.