Why is "autumntime" (or "falltime") not a word?
- wintertime => sure
- springtime => fine
- summertime => lovely
But apparently autumn/fall has no equivalent. Why?
The Anglo-Saxon calendar only had two seasons, winter and summer, each six months long. They had words for other periods of the year, but they weren't considered seasons.
At some point near the beginning of Middle English1, a four-season calendar was adopted. However, the other two seasons didn't have definite names. We can see from the OED that their names fluctuated for a while before settling into spring and fall or autumn.
c1050: Þa feower timan..lengten, sumor, hærfest, & winter.
a1387: Þe evenes of þe day and þe nyȝt is ones in þe Lente and efte in hervest.
1545: Spring tyme, Somer, faule of the leafe, and winter.
It seems from these quotes that we might easily have had lent (a shortened form of lengthen) and harvest as names for spring and autumn, as these were common names for these seasons in Middle English.
It also appears that the "long forms" of the names for the seasons were "spring time", "harvest time", and "fall of the leaf". This explains why we don't say "fall time".
The word "autumn" was borrowed from Old French in the 16th century, well after "springtime", "summertime", "harvesttime", and "wintertime" were established, and for some reason these phrases were not extended to "autumntime", even though it would have been a very logical development in English. Maybe people used "spring time" and "harvest time" more often earlier because "spring" and "harvest" weren't yet established words for seasons (as "summer" and "winter" were).
1 This probably didn't happen at a single point in time. The quote from the OED ca. 1050 lists four seasons. However, the song "Sumer Is Icumen In", which Wikipedia says was composed in the 13th century, is clearly about spring.
This answer is not meant to detract from Peter Shor’s, which I believe is both correct and insightful is its explanation of why autumntime occurs so rarely compared with the other three modern seasons.
Well, there is the word autumn-tide, but it doesn’t get used much. Here’s one OED citation for it:
1870 Morris Earthly Par. I. ii. 485 ― The changing year came round to autumn-tide.
This is the sense of tide that is equivalent to time, as in eventide or yuletide.
The OED’s sense 13 for time not only equates it to tide but even goes so far as to offer up the otherwise-absent autumn-time as one example:
13a. A point in the course of time or of a period: = tide sb.3 ; spec. in early ME., the hour of the day; = OE. tíd: see tide sb.4 [. . .]
13b. A point or fixed part of the year, a season, as in time of year; in comb. in spring-time, summer-time, autumn-time, winter-time; also term-time, vacation-time, holiday-time, etc.; also, of a day, as time of day, time of night, day-time, night-time, morning-time, evening-time; also dinner-time, bed-time, etc.; also, a point in the moon’s age.
However, the OED includes no actual citations for autumn-time.
As I recently mentioned elsewhere, it is important to remember that no dictionary purports to include all words, not even the OED. Just because a dictionary doesn’t list a word does not mean that that word is “not a word”: absence of evidence never constitutes evidence of absence.
There are many reasons why dictionaries leave words out. You should therefore never conclude that the omission of a dictionary entry for a word somehow “means” that that word is not an “actual” word.
On the other hand, just because a dictionary does happen to list a word does not necessarily mean that it is a common word that most native speakers will know what means.
In this particular case, we have a fairly uncommon word that nonetheless has a clear meaning that any native speaker would immediately recognize upon first seeing or hearing it. They just might think it a bit odd.
In tracking down literary citations for documentation of actual usage, I noticed that an unusually high proportion seemed to be in verse. This may be nothing more than a seasonal thread running through poetry.
In any event, instances of autumntime (including as an open compound autumn time or a hyphenated one autumn-time) are outnumbered by the other seasons by a factor of two to three orders of magnitude depending on the season.
One really must not consider those three forms different “words”. They aren’t; they are merely different ways of writing the same word. Similarly, the capitalization doesn’t matter either. First of all, the seasons were often capitalized in older prose. But also because poets like to personify the seasons and therefore capitalize them, although this practice is rare in current prose.
The word fall-time (no matter its spelling) is even less frequent than autumn-time, occurring too infrequently to try to assign relative frequencies. It also seems to be something of a North American regionalism, at least today. In particular, it surfaces in many accounts of the Yukon and Alaska, some of which I reference below.
It is interesting that all three of spring-time, harvest-time, fall-time occur in the Douglass citation, which being the oldest is the first one listed immediately below.
I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell his birhday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.
―Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass, 1845
Come to be dreaminess
come to see me soon and see me
go sleep go slip go slag
come down oh dreaminess
come falling slow
coming falling long and slow
now when the leaves are falling
now in the falltime moon
come springerly sprangerly sprong
come desta poesta dreaminess
not at the fall of leaves
now in the falltime moon.
―Poems For The People, Carl Sandburg, published 1992, written during the 1910s
The cornhuskers wear leather on their hands. There is no let-up to the wind. Blue bandannas are knotted at the ruddy chins. Falltime and winter apples take on the smolder of the five-o'clock November sunset: falltime, leaves, bonfires, stubble, the old things go, and the earth is grizzled.
―Cornhuskers, Carl Sandburg, 1918
When we were come to the nursery, first I did show her the many baby seeds I did gather by the wayside in the falltime. I did tell her how I was going to plant them when come springtime.
―The Atlantic Monthly. Philip Gengembre Hubert, 1920
Falltime is good to hear in W-Hollow. It is kindly sad, and if a body remembers the old-timers that used to be in W-Hollow in the falltime and remembers the frosty weed fields and the way they used to hunt — a body sorty wonders if the owls who-who for them in W-Hollow – them that used to be there an them there now.
―Trees of Heaven, Jesse Stuart, 1940
Falltime was drawing near at hand when all the leaves would be swept off with the fall winds and rains.
―Men of the Mountains, Jesse Stuart, 1979
So much has changed on the reserve now. In my time there was fishing and then hunting in the fall time. My mother used to tell me about her parents and I guess they had harder times then. The men used to go in the woods in the fall time and and hunt all winter. They’d come home Christmas time.
―Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out, Janet Silman, 1988
We came back to Carcross, 1913, falltime. When we got back, my aunt — my father’s sister, Mrs. Qunaaták’ — was sick. That’s why we didn’t go anyplace, just spent the winter in Carcross. Nineteen thirteen falltime she came to stay with us; that New Year’s Eve, she died. [. . .] And I remember when they took down the Kéet hít — Killer Whale House — 1912 or 1913, falltime. [. . .] Every falltime we used to get a month when he’s working on a section — he worked on section for thirty-five years.
―Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders, Julie Cruikshank, 1992
The falltime “woods” sound (tönen) while the grove is silent (schweigand). “Schweigand” signals, in opposition to the “falltime woods,” not only reduction of color and light but also the absence of sound.
―The Mirror and the Word: Modernism, Literary Theory, and George Trakl, Eric Williams, 1993
When falltime is closing in, Inuit move elsewhere.
―Uvajuq: The Origin of Death, David F. Pelly and Kim Crockatt, 1999
falltime Autumn. “I saw her in the falltime.”
―American Regionalisms, Facts on File Dictionary of, Robert Hendrickson, 2000
“Goddamn, it’s falltime! They’re getting their food piles ready already." The Yukon Flats stretch for nearly three hundred miles and host perhaps two million ducks during the summer. [. . .] “Sure feels like falltime. A few leaves turning yellow,” John William said.
―Hoagland on Nature: Essays, Edward Hoagland, 2003
In the fall time, everyone seemed to have a lighter sense of being, smiles all ...
―Escape from Mississippi: The Diary of a Boy Growing Up in the South, Lee Wells, 2010
While fresh pumpkin is great for straight-up pies, we prefer the consistency and flavor ofcanned for this insanely popular fall-time dessert; plus canned pumpkin equals pumpkin cheesecake all year round.
―Vegan Pie in the Sky: 75 Out-of-This-World Recipes for Pies, Tarts, Cobblers, and More, Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, 2011
The fall-time was also a period where Northern Commercial Company needed boat repairs. [. . .] We made journeys, especially during the fall-time, to the coast of go upriver in search of driftwood.
―Molly Hootch: I Remember When: Growing up in Alaska on the Kwiguk Pass of the Lower Yukon River, Molly Hootch, 2012
I’m guessing that fall-time is rare even in comparison with autumn-time because it is likely to occur only in North American writers. It could also be that autumn-time may sound more “poetic” even to them.
Those are all the same word; after all, when spoken, they sound identical and mean the very same thing. How this word happens to be written is merely a matter of orthographic convention, something that varies considerably across time, across publishers, and across authors.
In the double-dozen citations I give below, which illustrate a wide variety of orthographic practices, it is especially interesting when other seasons are mentioned in the same citation.
The bold emphasis is my own; it’s to help you more easily navigate the citations, which are given in chronological order as much as possible.
It was on a certain evening of the pale Autumn time of a certain year since the flood, when there was a general assembling of the heavenly host.
―Sad Tales and Glad Tales, Grenville Mellen, 1828
The summer has passed away. The autumn-time has come. The summer-time is the season of promise; autumn is the time of fruition. Winter, is that stillness and coldness, and dreariness, which fortel the dawning of Hope; and spring is the cheering time of Hope.
―The Christian Wreath: Religion, Morality, Literature, 1847
In the Autumn-time of the year, when the great metropolis is so much hotter, so much noisier, so much more dusty or so much more water-carted, so much more crowded, so much more disturbing and distracting in all respects, than it usually is, a quiet sea-beach becomes indeed a blessed spot.
―Our English Watering-Place, Charles Dickens, 1851
The day broke mistily (it was autumn time), and I could not disembarrass myself of the idea that I had to climb those heights and banks of cloud, and that there was an Alpine Convent somewhere behind the sun, where I was going to breakfast.
―The Uncommercial Traveller, Charles Dickens, 1861
And when the autumn comes the flowers to fade
As the man faded: then he thinks of death,
Which makes the autumntime seem melancholy.
And this was autumntime, so my own memories
And thoughts went to the music of the year—
To the sad music of eternity,
And death — as everything did die.
―My first book, named otherwise: Lispings, yearnings and mutterings, Levi Belcher, 1873
Margie had wished for spring violets, and he had given her these, obtained that day from a hothouse, where the tropical atmosphere had deceived the little blue-eyed things into thinking the chilly autumn-time was blossoming May.
―Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, “The Fatal Glove: –or– The History of a Chimney-Sweeper”, Clara Augusta, 1875
Now is the Spring of Love, yet soon will come
On meadow and tree the Summer’s lordly bloom;
And soon the grass with brighter flowers will blow,
And send up lilies for some boy to mow.
Then before long the Summer’s conqueror,
Rich Autumn-time, the season’s usurer,
Will lend his hoarded gold to all the trees,
And see it scattered by the spendthrift breeze;
And after that the Winter cold and drear.
So runs the perfect cycle of the year.
―“Ravenna”, Oscar Wilde, 1878
Another day dawned and closed, and another; the blossomed wheatears set, and the ears plumped out and absorbed the sunlight till they too fell beneath the scythe, and deep peace of the mellow autumn-time lay upon meadow, wood, and sea.
―The Last Sentence, Maxwell Gray, 1892
Coming to this autumn time, the Christian, as we have found him, longs for the soul’s home.
―The Christian Evangelist, 1904
The passionate music of wild birds’ songs plays upon the strings of the one heart, which is the mother heart of each and both. In the autumntime, when the tyrant “Jack Frost” comes and causes this tree to “furl her sails” and go into winter quarters, one by one the beautiful leaves turn red, then brown, then loosen their hold and flutter to earth.
―Sunshine and Shadow: Some Promiscuous Writings, John Logan Jones, 1909
“What a queer way of living!” thought Striped Chipmunk. “It’s all very well to have a snug house under the ground, where one can sleep the long cold winter away and be perfectly safe, but what any one wants to live under the ground all the time for, in the beautiful springtime and summertime and autumntime, I can’t understand. Just think of all that Miner misses — the sunshine, the flowers, the songs of the birds, and the Merry Little Breezes to play with! I wonder—”
―Mother West Wind “Why” Stories, Thornton Waldo Burgess, 1915
It is a Saturday afternoon of blue and yellow autumn-time, and the scene is the High Street of a well-known market-town.
―The Works of Thomas Hardy in Prose and Verse, Thomas Hardy, 1920
And see great, void, tree-clad hills piling behind one another, from nowhere into nowhere. They were green in autumn time.
―The Woman Who Rode Away and other stories, DH Lawrence, 1928
In autumntime, Ovid explains (II, 315–336), the girl’s health may be affected by rapid shifts of hot and cold weather.
―Ovid: A Poet Between Two Worlds, Hermann Ferdinand Fränkel, 1945
On each occasion when autumn-time came round, they put to shore, sowed grain in the soil of whatever part of Libya they had reached on their voyage, and waited until reaping-time.
―The Cambridge History of the British Empire (Volume II), Eric Anderson Walker, 1963
Once upon a time that tree had dropped its burden of nuts in the autumn-time.
―No Time for Tears, June Masters Bacher, 1992
If I never get to Mexico to see them in their overwintering sites, I can at least look forward to a continual feast of monarch butterfly beauty during their summer and early autumn time here on our mountain.
―Appalacian Autumn, Marcia Bonta, 1994
It is composed of height of ponderosa, breadth of valley, depth of stream, wintertime, summertime, springtime, autumntime, the vanilla smell of Jeffery pine, the gritty taste of granite, the puckery taste of alpine sorrel, the unexpected song of a canyon wren, the senses of time, the waterfalls of the mind.
―Natural State: A Literary Anthology of California Nature Writing, Steven Gilbar, 1998
The springtime full moon has a much different luminescence than the autumntime full moon.
―Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Inga Muscio, 2002
Surely the wintertime of human life must have its own special rewards, not just a pitiful appendage to autumntime.
―Facing Death: Theme and Variations, F. David Martin, 2006
Along with the inexorable process of letting go, this season holds a great sense of quality and meaning, which is apparent on a quiet stroll in the forest during the autumntime.
―Archetypal Acupuncture: Healing with the Five Elements, Gary Dolowich, 2011
Well, forgotten except by the town kids who sometimes went up there, mainly in the summer: there was no-one around at autumntime, except me, Daz and Simon – and they’ll all tell you at the High School that we’re crazy.
―Catch and Other Stories, Steve Bowkett, 2012
Above all, it was believed that plague prevailed during the autumn: Autumn-time was called “our enemy” and “the slayer of many men” because this was the season that was seen as being more changeable, humid and windy, and it was then that the summer’s head might linger and yet the sun, being lower in the sky, was not as effective in terms of burning up the air’s moistures with its deflected rays.
―An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature, John Aberth, 2012
Acorns and beech mast are real favourites, and jays become very active, and slightly less wary, around autumntime when food is abundant.
―Hunting with Air Rifles: The Complete Guide, Matthew Manning, 2014
One reason why autumn time was not accepted in standard use is that the Latin word is already ready-made for harvest time. I suppose that the etymology of the Latin word is altum tempus which changed to autum+..m.us which changed to autumnus. As altum tempus means already high time a word formation such as "high time-time" is not very convincing.
BNC, a British corpus with material from the later part of the 20th century onwards, has no incidents for autumntime, autumn time, and autumn-time.
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