Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Autumn is officially upon us, and though the word is just as common as any other season’s name, it has a more mysterious past. While our other season names — spring, summer, winter, and fall — are native English words that we can trace back to our Germanic roots, autumn has a more mysterious past.
In Old English, the season was referred to as harvest — because it was the time to bring in the crops. But during the late 14th century, the Old French word autumpne, which finds its roots in the Latin autumnus, found its way into English, and it became pretty popular pretty quickly. It makes sense, too — harvest could otherwise refer to the actual crops or to the act of bringing in those crops, so opportunities for confusion were abundant. (Imagine, for example, if we called winter snow.)
However, how autumnus entered Latin is a mystery. As the Roman Empire grew, it seems neither Roman scholars nor politicians were much interested in studying, much less preserving, the culture, traditions, or — most important for this discussion — languages of conquered peoples. Their existence was not lost completely, though; some pieces were absorbed, including local words. We can usually trace words to these languages, though, even if they are now dead.
Not so with autumn.
A common approach to hunting down the etymology of difficult English words is to compare them to other known Indo-European languages. Languages change in sometimes predictable ways, and careful study can reveal not only the history of a word’s evolution, but its physical route across the land. But with autumn, no such luck. The names for this season vary widely — from Croatian jesen to Corsican vaghjimu to Greek phthinoporon — with little to indicate any distant relation to autumn. One theory is that the word comes from Etruscan, an extinct language once spoken on parts of the Italian peninsula, but we may never know for sure.
So for now, the word’s past will lie hidden beneath centuries of bright fallen leaves.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com
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