Friday, September 23, 2005


Yesterday was the autumn equinox. Today is the full day of fall. Alongside spring, fall was always one of my favourite seasons. In Missouri it is one of the few times of year when we have weather that is neither too hot (as in the summer) or too cold (as in the winter). In the season we can generally look forward to high temperatures in the seventies and lows in the fifites (using the Fahrenheit scale--I've little idea what that would be in Celsius).

Of course, fall is the one season for which the English speaking world can't seem to agree on a name. Here in the United States the season is most popularly known as "the fall," even though elsewhere in the English speaking world it is more commonly called "autumn." In Old English the season was known by yet another word, hærfest. For the most part these words for the season refer to the two events most commonly associated with it--the falling of the leaves and the gathering of the crops. Referring to autumn as "the fall" dates from about 1664 and is short for "the fall of the leaf," a phrase which itself dates from about 1545, both being references to the leaves changing colours and falling from the trees. In England and other English speaking countries, referring to autumn as "the fall" fell out of use over the centuries, although for some reason it has persisted here in the United States. As mentioned earlier, in Old English autumn was called hærfest, our modern word harvest. The word harvest seems to have originated in reference to autumn as the season when crops are gathered. The word harvest ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *kerp- "to gather, pluck, harvest. From the 14th century onward, the meaning of harvest gradually shifted from "the time when crops are gathered" to the "action of gathering crops" and eventually "crops which have been harvested." It is at this time when the season came to be known by the word "autumn," which itself derives from autumnus, the Latin word for the season.

The fall of the leaves is an event to which many, myself included, look forward. In many areas of the world, my home of Missouri included, the leaves will change colours from green to a dazzling array of yellows, reds, browns, oranges, and so on. In many places people will actually make tours to see the various colours of the leaves on the trees in the fall. Of course, the other event for which the season is known is also the harvesting of crops. Today the harvesting of grain is usually performed by a combine, but before the Industrial Age it had to all be done by hand. Harvesting the crops was strenuous work, requring many people to do it over a number of days. After the work was done, people were generally in a mood to celebrate, hence we have the many harvest festivals throughout the world. In the United States this usually takes the form of "fall fairs," such as the Randolph County Old Settlers Reunion and Fall Fair which takes place here in Randolph County (actually the second week of September, which is a bit before the fall, but we won't go into that...).

In some ways autumn is a time of endings. It is the time when the growing season ends, when the crops are gathered. It is also when the trees lose their leaves. Oddly enough, however, in the English speaking world, it is also a time of beginnings. In the United States it is traditionally when the new television season begins. I suppose the reason for this is that in the summer people usually have other things to do than watch television--vacations, picnics, trips to various lakes, et. al. By September people are apparently ready to settle down and watch TV again. In much of the English speaking world it is also the beginning of the school year. I suspect this is rooted in the agricultural calender. In the days when most farm work had to be done by hand, children would have been needed at home on the farm to help with the work. Once the crops were gathered, they could return to school. In the United States autumn has also been the time when new car models are released. I have no explanation for this, as it seems to me that this could take place any time of year. Maybe the automotive industry simply figured that after a summer's worth of wear and tear on the family car, people would be ready for a new car.

At any rate, I am certainly ready for the fall. This summer in Missouri was particularly hot and dry, hardly pleasant by any stretch of the imagination. Right now I am more than happy to have mild temperatures when I can wear a sweater or jacket if I so choose and when one can simply throw open the windows to cool the house down. It is a welcome change from the heat of summer.

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