As the next season is almost upon us, I thought that it might be a good time to gaze in wonder upon its beauty. Autumn is certainly my favorite season, which, if you have experienced it in New England, wouldn’t surprise you, as the combination of color, cooler weather, and the harvest of the season make it truly special.
As I reside in the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox will arrive on September 22 at 14:21 UT. I’m a bit of a traditionalist in counting the equinox as the start of Autumn rather than the beginning of September; with the weather in New England being rather warm, it doesn’t feel very autumnal yet. Hopefully, by the middle of next week, things will be a little cooler!
The word autumn comes from the ancient Etruscan root autu- and has within it connotations of the passing of the year. It was borrowed by the neighbouring Romans, and became the Latin word autumnus. After the Roman era, the word continued to be used as the Old French word autompne (automne in modern French) or autumpne in Middle English, and was later normalized to the original Latin. In the Medieval period, there are rare examples of its use as early as the 12th century, but by the 16th century, it was in common use.
Before the 16th century, harvest was the term usually used to refer to the season, as it is common in other West Germanic languages to this day (cf. Dutch herfst, German Herbst and Scots hairst). However, as more people gradually moved from working the land to living in towns, the word harvest lost its reference to the time of year and came to refer only to the actual activity of reaping, and autumn, as well as fall, began to replace it as a reference to the season.
The alternative word fall for the season traces its origins to old Germanic languages. The exact derivation is unclear, with the Old English fiæll or feallanand the Old Norse fall all being possible candidates. However, these words all have the meaning “to fall from a height” and are clearly derived either from a common root or from each other. The term came to denote the season in 16th century England, a contraction of Middle English expressions like “fall of the leaf” and “fall of the year”.
During the 17th century, English emigration to the British colonies in North America was at its peak, and the new settlers took the English language with them. While the term fall gradually became obsolete in Britain, it became the more common term in North America.
The name backend, a once common name for the season in Northern England, has today been largely replaced by the name autumn.
Association with the transition from warm to cold weather, and its related status as the season of the primary harvest, has dominated its themes and popular images. In Western cultures, personifications of autumn are usually pretty, well-fed females adorned with fruits, vegetables and grains that ripen at this time. Many cultures feature autumnal harvest festivals, often the most important on their calendars. Still extant echoes of these celebrations are found in the autumn Thanksgiving holiday of the United States and Canada, and the Jewish Sukkot holiday with its roots as a full-moon harvest festival of “tabernacles” (living in outdoor huts around the time of harvest). There are also the many North American Indian festivals tied to harvest of ripe foods gathered in the wild, the Chinese Mid-Autumn or Moon festival, and many others. The predominant mood of these autumnal celebrations is a gladness for the fruits of the earth mixed with a certain melancholy linked to the imminent arrival of harsh weather.
This view is presented in English poet John Keats’ poem To Autumn, where he describes the season as a time of bounteous fecundity, a time of ‘mellow fruitfulness’.
While most foods are harvested during the autumn, foods particularly associated with the season include pumpkins (which are integral parts of both Thanksgiving and Halloween) and apples, which are used to make the seasonal beverage apple cider.
The East Coast of the United States is known for being host to some of the most colorful autumns in the world, which especially New England—among other locations along the East Coast—is famous for.
Autumn, especially in poetry, has often been associated with melancholia. The possibilities of summer are gone, and the chill of winter is on the horizon. Skies turn grey, the amount of usable daylight drops rapidly, and many people turn inward, both physically and mentally. It has been referred to as an unhealthy season.
Similar examples may be found in Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ poem The Wild Swans at Coole where the maturing season that the poet observes symbolically represents his own aging self. Like the natural world that he observes, he too has reached his prime and now must look forward to the inevitability of old age and death. French poet Paul Verlaine’s “Chanson d’automne” (“Autumn Song”) is likewise characterized by strong, painful feelings of sorrow. Keats’ To Autumn, written in September 1819, echoes this sense of melancholic reflection, but also emphasizes the lush abundance of the season.