Fall vs. Autumn: What Is the Difference?

Autumn leaves on trees

After the dog days of summer, the heat finally starts to break, and the nights become longer. Farmers and gardeners harvest their fruits and vegetables, and the leaves begin to change color and fall from the trees as we move into the fall season.

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, fall starts with the autumnal equinox (the scientific name), which begins between September 21-24, and it ends with the winter solstice, which is between December 20-23 every year.

But depending on where you are in the world, this season can have a different name. Here in the United States, it’s much more common to call it “fall.” However, you can use “fall” and “autumn” interchangeably.

So why do Americans prefer to call the season “fall,” and is there a difference? We were curious as well, so we did some research to learn more about the season’s origin.

Before the 16th Century, “Autumn” or “Fall” Had Another Name

Wheat field ready for harvest

Autumn was originally called “harvest.”

The season between summer and winter has not always been referred to as either “fall“ or “autumn.“ Before the 16th Century, in England, it was usually referred to as “harvest,” or more accurately, “hærfest” in Old English.

The season was referred to as “harvest” because people associated these months with the gathering of crops by farmers in preparation for winter storage—which typically occurred between August and November. For those linguists out there, the word harvest is of Germanic origin and meant “picking,” “plucking, or “reaping,” all activities farmers would have been performing at this time of the year before winter.

Eventually, “Autumn” and ”Fall” Emerged as the Popular Terms

People during this period were increasingly moving from rural farmland into larger metropolitan areas. For these city dwellers, the term “harvest” didn’t apply to their way of life. As you can imagine, it was possibly confusing given that the word harvest is also used for the act of harvesting crops. Subsequently, “autumn” and ”fall” emerged as the popular terms to denote the season.

”Autumn” came from the Latin word “autumnus”, and the Old French word “autompne” (“automne” in modern French), the origin of the word has connotations of “the passing of the year.” ”Fall” has Germanic roots and is found in Old English as “fiæll” or “feallan”, which both mean “to fall from a height.” ”Fall” became widely used in 16th Century England. It was originally short for the expressions “fall of the leaf” and “fall of the year.”

Why is Autumn Called ”Fall” in America?

Fall season at White Mountain National Forest

People use both names in America, but “fall” is the more popular term.

By the 17th Century, English emigration to the British Colonies in North America was at its peak. The new settlers brought with them the English language, which included both the words ”fall” and ”autumn.” Since either term was used in Britain at this time, they both made it to our shores.

While the exact reasons why aren’t completely clear, the term “fall” gradually fell out of favor for “autumn” in Britain, and by the time America won its independence, “fall” was primarily used by Americans.

Using the name “fall” is a uniquely American and Canadian behavior. In Britain, Australia, and other English-speaking countries, the term for these months is “autumn.” Although people use both names interchangeably in America, you’re much more likely to hear the word “fall.”

When is Fall?

The two common ways to delineate the fall season are based on the astronomical calendar, which uses the two solstices and two equinoxes to define the seasons, and the meteorological calendar, where the four seasons are broken down into groupings of three months.

Astronomical Fall

Astronomical fall uses the position of the earth in relation to the sun to determine when the fall season begins and ends. In the Northern Hemisphere, the beginning of fall is always marked by the autumnal equinox between September 21-24, and it ends with the winter solstice, which is between December 20-23 every year. Exactly what day does fall start this year? Find out here.

The September equinox is the moment when the sun passes directly above earth’s celestial equator in a southward direction. While this equinox marks the first day of astronomical fall in the Northern Hemisphere, it signals the first day of spring for those in the Southern Hemisphere. Astronomical fall then ends with the winter solstice (the day with the shortest amount of sunlight in the whole year), which occurs when the North Pole reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun.

Meteorological Fall

In contrast, meteorologists and climatologists break the four seasons down into groups of three months according to the annual temperature cycle and the 12-month calendar. The meteorological seasons are less variable in length and season start compared to the astronomical seasons. In the Northern Hemisphere, meteorological fall lasts for 91 days, starting on September 1 and running through to November 30.

  • Meteorological spring is March, April, and May.
  • Meteorological summer is June, July, and August.
  • Meteorological fall is September, October, and November.
  • Meteorological winter is December, January, and February.

The consistent timing of the meteorological seasons makes it easier for meteorologists and climate scientists to keep records of the weather to compare statistics of the same period in different years.

Published: June 30, 2021

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