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This post was originally published on March 20 2011, and almost entirely rewritten on March 26 2015.
Tomorrow is the Autumn Equinox, ushering in my favourite season of the year. The searing heat of summer finally retreats, leaving us with a long stretch of sunny days with blue skies, white fluffy clouds, and invigorating fresh breezes, coupled with cool nights where we can finally turn off the fan and pull the covers over us for a deep, refreshing sleep at last.
After a blazing heatwave or a devastating cyclone season, the cool air of autumn comes as a relief. Following a dry summer, autumn rain can be a blessing. I love watching the leaves of the deciduous trees turn red and gold, the clear blue skies and mellow warm days followed by crisp doona-snuggling nights. And then later, the thick grey mists, sparkling frosts, and drifts of brown leaves brought down by the cold wind.
Not all of Australia experiences autumn, with the tropics having just a Wet Season and a Dry, and only a small portion of south-eastern Australia having the classic picture postcard four seasons, crisply demarcated from each other.
Indigenous Australians had their own seasons, which differed from region to region, and which began and ended, not with a particular date on the calendar, but according to observations of the natural world. In the area which is now the Greater Sydney Basin, the Illawarra, and the Southern Highlands, the D’harawal people (who had seven seasons in all) marked the beginning of Marrai’gang around this time of year when the marrai’gang (quoll) began mating and the lilly-pilly fruit started to ripen on the trees.
Other countries may have more spectacular autumns than Australia, with more brilliant colours, but so often there is a melancholy that goes with it, a feeling that the natural world is winding down for the year, and corresponding brooding thoughts of our own mortality.
Here there is no tinge of sadness, and far from the woods bearing “bare ruined choirs”, our native trees almost never lose their leaves. Many native plants begin flowering in the autumn, so that the bush is filled with the bright colours of banksia, grevillea, and correa, as well as the purple lilly-pilly. Some species of bird migrate from the mountains to the coast during autumn, with flocks of thousands making an amazing sight. The loveliness of an Australian autumn is quiet and subtle.
While other seasons have their own beauty, they also seem to have their drawbacks. Winter – too cold! Summer – too hot! Spring – too changeable! Only autumn seems perfectly balanced, with the right amount of warm days and cool days, delightfully dry days and welcome wet days, each marching smoothly and evenly from the blues and golds of March, through the browns and yellows of April, to the greys and greens of May.
The word autumn is from the French automne, taken from the Latin autumnus. This is derived from the Etruscan, relating to the passing of the year, ultimately from an ancient root meaning “cold”.
North Americans have two words for the season – autumn and fall. The reason is because the words autumn and fall both came into common use in the 16th and 17th centuries, and as English people began successfully migrating to North America in the early 17th century, they took both words with them. While the word fall for the season aptly fell out of use in Britain, it became the dominant word in the United States.
While autumn is from French, fall is from Old English, and refers to the falling of leaves, as well as the year falling away. It’s a word that makes a lot of linguistic sense, because it’s the exact opposite of spring in meaning (thus North Americans get the handy little mnemonic for the start and end of daylight saving time – spring forward and fall back an hour).
North Americans use autumn and fall interchangeably, and can do so even within the same sentence. However, although personal preference plays a part, in general they seem to use fall in a more practical way, while autumn is literary and formal. So children go back to school in the fall, but fashions come in autumn tones; TV networks bring out their fall schedules, but beloved grandfathers enter their autumn years. In other words, autumn is not just the word for the season, but a poetic or elegant description of the season.
The interesting thing is why there are two words for autumn anyway – it’s not as if winter and summer have other names. The truth is, autumn is a modern concept. In the medieval period, the year was divided into just two seasons, winter and summer. The time of year closest to what we call autumn was known as harvest, and it seems to have corresponded with late summer/early autumn.
By the 16th century, people had begun moving away from a rural way of life, and harvest was no longer an appropriate name for the time of year. I guess people felt awkward clattering up the cobbled streets of London, dodging carriages and chamber pots, telling each other that they would catch up next harvest. Both autumn and fall were tried out as descriptions of the transition from the heat of summer to the cold of winter, and by the 18th century they had both superseded the rustic word harvest. However, by the 19th, fall was no longer used in Britain, and it became seen as American usage only.
(This explains why fall never became part of the Australian vocabulary – as we weren’t settled by the British until the late 18th century, autumn was already the accepted word for the season. It would have been a very inappropriate name on this continent anyway, as there are few native trees here whose leaves fall in the autumn, or ever.)
So even though we might think of the season of autumn as ancient, timeless, and natural, it is in fact not just a modern construct, but a specifically urban one.
Knowing the history of the word autumn, it will not come as any surprise that use of Autumn as a personal name for girls is quite recent, dating back only to the 19th century. Nor will it seem at all strange that its use was in the beginning almost entirely North American, because on that continent autumn was not the standard word for the season, but one imbued with a certain archaic charm.
This trend continues, because in the US, Autumn has been in the Top 1000 since 1969, giving it a “hippie name” vibe. Currently it is in the Top 100 and gently rising, being #69 in 2011 and #65 in 2013. It is also a Top 100 name in some Canadian provinces.
In England/Wales, Autumn was in the 500s until Princess Anne’s son Peter Phillips began dating a Canadian named Autumn Kelly in 2002, upon which the name Autumn began climbing in the UK, with a steeper ascent after Autumn and Peter’s wedding in 2008. After peaking at #179 in 2011, just after Autumn Phillips had given birth to her first child Savannah, the name has since levelled off and is now #197.
In Australia, the name Autumn is rarely found in historical records, and it has never charted here. In 2013, 3 baby girls were named Autumn in South Australia, in 2012, 9 baby girls were given the name Autumn in Victoria, and in Tasmania in 2010 there was only one baby called Autumn. The royal connection does not seem to have helped it here, as it has in the UK, and I only see it occasionally in Australian birth notices.
Autumn is a modern nature name for girls that is pretty without being frilly, and may appeal to some Australian parents by dint of being underused here. It celebrates a beautiful time of year, and could suit a child born in autumn, or with autumn-toned colouring. With Autumn, you get that attractive combination of a name that is completely “normal” and familiar, while not being at all common. That alone makes Autumn seem like a pretty awesome choice!
Autumn received an extraordinary approval rating of 92%, making it one of the highest rated names of the year. 38% of people loved the name Autumn, while not a single person hated it.
(Photo shows an autumn leaf in the Aurora Valley of Bangalow, New South Wales)