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‘Autumpnus. Complexio: frigidus temperate in 2º. Electio: medium ipsius. Iuuamentum: gradatim procedentibus ad contraria ut calidum et humidum. Nocumentum: nocet temperatis constitutionibus et dispositis ad ptisim. Remotio nocumenti: cum humectantibus et balneo. Quid auget: humores melencolicos. Conuenit: calidis et humidis iuuenibus siue adolescentibus calidis et humidis regionibus alias temperatis.’

‘Autumn. Nature: moderately cold in the second degree. Optimum: its middle part. Benefit: gradually shifts to the contrary, i.e. hot and wet. Harm: it damages temperate constitutions prone to tuberculosis. Remedy for harm: with humidifiers and baths. Effects: melancholic humours. Advisable for hot and wet [temperaments], youth or adolescents, in hot, wet regions, according to others, in temperate regions.’ (Image and text from Tacuinum Sanitatis, 1390,  from the Latin translated ‘Taqwīm as‑siḥḥah تقويم الصحة or “Maintenance of Health” Tacuinum sanitatis in medicina. Codex Vindobonensis Series nova 2644, der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Graz)

‘Autumn cometh again heavy of apples’ Chaucer

“October 1st. Autumn rises into the bright sky. Corn is down. Fields shine after harvest.” J.A. Baker, The Peregrine

“October is the month of painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight” (Thoreau, Autumnal Tints)

October 5: I am obsessing about leaves and trees and “seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness”. I am here in the United States, Buffalo, New York to be precise, waiting with my daughter and her partner for the birth of their first child. And in the meantime I walk the oak, sycamore, and elm lined streets and gasp at trees and the startling flash of colour. As an Australian who has for many years lived in the tropical lushness of the Malaysian jungle and lately returned to the steely grey- green leafiness of the Australian coast, the colour here in Buffalo is vibrant and intense. I obsess, looking for the perfect tree against a cloudless blue sky, the perfect tree that embodies autumn.

“No more photos of trees or leaves,” texts my elder daughter from Melbourne.

And while caught in the hunt for the perfect autumnal tree and leaf, I wonder about my use as an Australian of autumn and the American use of fall the former Latinate and the latter of Old English origins. Which was attested first in English?

What is autumn? What is it not?

When working with students or teachers, before leaping to resources, we first try to get a sense of the word. So: What is autumn? What is autumn not?  Often in determining what something is not,  our understanding of what that ‘something’ is will deepen.  

Autumn is not spring, not the first shoots of new life, not a vivid unfurling of greenness, not a blossoming and blooming. It carries no promise of warmth in lengthening days.

Autumn is a time of ripeness and ripening, heavy and bounteous, it’s ruddy coloured, rich and mature, it’s the fading of summer, the stage before winter dormancy. There’s an increasing chill in the air.


Autumn, the period ‘… during which the leaves of many deciduous trees change colour and are shed, the nights get longer, and the weather typically becomes cooler’ (OED), was attested in the 14th century entering English via Old French as autumpne from Latin autumnus and beyond that it’s only speculation. Perhaps Etruscan suggests the Online Etymology Dictionary, but substantial evidence like dry leaves is scattered. Chaucer wrote  this word perhaps in 1380 ‘Autumpne  comeþ aȝeyne heuy of apples.’: Autumn cometh again heavy of apples.

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Autumn is a free base element built of four phonemes: /ˈɔːtəm/ comprised of two digraphs <au> representing /ɔː/ and the digraph  <mn> here representing the /m/. I am caught by <mn>  where in autumn it represents /m/ when final, but then represents both phones [mn] when the vocalic suffix <-al>  is added: <autumn+al→ autumnal> pronounced as /  ɔːˈtʌmnəl/. The stress shifts and <mn> is now realized as [mn] . Autumn and autumnal shows that the digraph <mn> can represent [m] and [mn] depending on the circumstances of position and whether a vocalic suffix has been added. This aspect occurs in all words where the <mn> is final: damn /dam/ – damnation  /damˈneɪʃ(ə)n/; condemn /kənˈdɛm/ and condemnation/ˌkɒndəmˈneɪʃn/; hymn /hɪm/ and hymnal/ˈhɪmnəl/; solemn/ˈsɒləm/ and solemnity /səˈlɛmnɪti/.

Is the <mn> of Greek origins? I had at first assumed so. No, it’s featured in both Latin and Greek words. Damn and condemn are related and share the Latinate root damnare to harm, damage. Hymn, attested by the OED as 825, entered English via Old English and Old French but is of Greek origin: ὕμνος ‘:a song or ode in praise of gods or heroes’. The OED notes that ‘the earliest evidence for the non-pronunciation of final -n’  is from Palsgrave’s imme

<mn> is also found initially in words of the family <mnem>. These words are derived from ancient Greek μνημονικός mnemonikos relating to memory from Greek μνᾶσθαι: mnasthai :  to remember. So < mnemon+ic+s →mnemonics>, < mnemon+ist → mnemonist>, < mnemon+ize → mnemonize>. In these words <mn> is realized not as [m] as occurs when <mn> is final in a base element, but  as [n]: so /nɪˈmɒnɪk/ mnemonic.

However, when a prefix occurs before the <mn> digraph as in <amnesty  → a+mnest +y > and <amnesia → a+mnese+ia> the  <mn> is realized as [mn] :/ˈamnɪstˈi/: amnesty ,  /amˈniːzɪə/: amnesia.

The digraph <mn> can represent either [m], or [n] or [mn] depending on its position and the addition of affixes.

Autumn has a small family for such colourful presence: autumn, autumns, autumnal, autumnally, and the awkward autumnize.


Fall, the term for the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is now used predominantly in the US. It  is a free base element comprised of three phonemes /fɔːl/

It was present both nominally and verbally in OE. As a noun in OE it denoted a snare or trap, still seen in the compounds deadfall, mousefall, pitfall. Fall’s senses gradually grew so by 1200 it denoted a fall to the ground or building collapse, by the 13th century it could signify succumbing to temptation. However, the underlying sense of a downward movement always lurks beneath. By the 1540s, fall was embedded in the phrase “fall of the leaf” which by 1660s was shortened simply to “fall”. Once common in British English in the 16th century, ‘by the end of the 17th century fall had been overtaken by autumn as the more usual term for this season. In early North America both terms were in use, but fall had become established as the more usual term by the early 19th century’ (OED).

And why <ll> in fall, smell, trill, knoll, and dull but only a single <l> finally in churl, pearl, cool, steal, snail ? Gathering more words and developing a hypothesis to account for the single or double <l> in lexical words that are free base elements and have only one syllable, is an engaging inquiry for students old and young. Can students find more words to confirm their hypothesis? This inquiry of a single or a double<l> reveals an important orthographic convention of English and applies not only to <l>,  but also where <f>, <s> or <z> is final in lexical words with a free base element.

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see Real Spelling Gallery ‘conventions’ for a clear explanation of this (and other) conventions of English orthography.

The OED lists 40 distinct senses of the noun fall, the fortieth being the seasonal term, and fifty-six verbal senses. Highlights of the various senses in no particular order are:

  • that which befalls a happening, an occurrence
  • the descent of night or twilight or occasionally the approach of winter
  • the closing part of a day, year or person’s life
  • birth of animal’s young
  • a kind of veil, especially from a bonnet
  • the loss of a wicket in cricket
  • manner in which cards are dealt
  • another collective term for ‘woodcock ‘- a fall of woodcock
  • the rare- ‘alighting of a bird to the ground’
  • outflow of a river into the sea
  • shedding of blood
  • downward movement of sword, axe or blade
  • in criminal slang the arrest or period of imprisonment
  • downfall or ruin of something or someone: “Honour and shame is in talk: and the tongue of man is his fall’ Ecclesiasticus 5:13, King James bible, 1611
  • the conclusion of a passage of words or a melody: ‘that straine agen, it had a dying fall’ (Twelfth Night, Shakespeare) 

Fall compounds readily as you can see from the matrix. The compound pratfall <prat+fall> is a theatrical term attested in 1939 – a comedy fall, literally a fall on the buttocks with prat criminal slang for buttocks. The origins of prat remain murky, but it has been attested since 1560s and later in British slang it has negative connotations in indicating a person worthy of contempt as illustrated in the line from Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane: ‘Go on, you superannuated old prat!’

Fall Matrix

Older than autumn and fall is harvest. Harvest was jostled by these words to take on a primary sense as ‘ the produce of the season’ rather than specifically the season itself. And who would connect carpets and excerpts with this word on first glance? I hear the gasps of astonishment…read on!

Harvest is Old English hærfest, hęrfest growing from Germanic stock, Proto Germanic *harbitas which in turn grew from the ancient Proto Indo European *kerp- to gather pluck and harvest. Unravelled, shredded and plucked fabric is the underlay behind Latin carpere to card and pluck which eventually produced carpita –thick, woolen cloth in Old Italian or Medieval Latin and from there passing into Old French and into English itself.

The verbal sense of excerpt, <ex+cerpt> lies in plucking  and extracting something from its source and can be traced back via Latin excerpere to pluck out, to Latin carpere to pluck and gather.

Scarce too shares the same root. It entered English around 1300 via Old French scars via Vulgar Latin (‘the everyday speech of the Roman people, as opposed to literary Latin’ Online Etymology Dictionary) and Latin excerpere to pluck out. The Germanic harvest and its Latinate cousins all share an underlying sense of plucking and gathering.

harvest tree


I ended this shuffle through autumn leaves by reading Thoreau and Emerson.  Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau, August 1862, stated:

‘Henry David Thoreau was a born protestant, and few lives contain so many renunciations. He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature. He had no talent for wealth, and knew how to be poor without the least hint of squalor or inelegance. He declined invitations to dinner-parties, because there each was in every one’s way, and he could not meet the individuals to any purpose. They make their pride in making their dinner cost much; I make my pride in making my dinner cost little.’

2017 is the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth. His essay Autumn Tints, delivered not long before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 44, is an exuberant ode to this season published in The Atlantic Monthly of 1862. Robert D. Richardson noted Thoreau’s excitement and intensity for this season that revealed itself in thirty-three exclamation points and twenty-three words or phrases italicized for emphasis in the 25-page piece. One statement that continues to resonate one hundred and fifty-five years later :

We have only to elevate our view a little to see the whole forest as a garden.Those who merely look will observe a maple, while those who see will marvel at a living liberty-pole on which a thousand bright flags are waving. (Thoreau, Autumn Tints )

I love the reference to ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ – synonyms but by no means interchangeable. Exploring this synonym pair would make for an intriguing word inquiry with students or a blog post here at a later stage. Words and their synonyms, no matter how close, vary in nuance as Thoreau senses above, as different as the tree species I have been observing here in Buffalo.

We love to see any redness in the vegetation of the temperate zone. It is the color of colors. This plant speaks to our blood. It asks a bright sun on it to make it show to best advantage, and it must be seen at this season of the year. (Thoreau, Autumn Tints )

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Oct 24: I am so glad that our beautiful baby girl entered the world in the early morning of October 18 in such a mellow, ripe season. I am glad that when she opened her eyes to the world, the leaves of the trees danced in red and golden glory. Long may she ‘see’ and not merely ‘look’ at the marvel of nature.

If you want a different shade or tint of a particular color, you have only to look farther within or without the tree or the wood. These leaves are not many dipped in one dye, as at the dye-house, but they are dyed in light of infinitely various degrees of strength, and left to set and dry there. (Thoreau, Autumn Tints)