Archive for January 15, 2009

The Fall Before

Posted in Poetry with tags on January 15, 2009 by telescoper

Browsing the BBC website for any evidence of at all of good news amid the continuing fiasco that is the British banking system, the murderous onslaught in Gaza, and the defeat of Newcastle United in last night’s FA Cup replay, I happened upon a quite interesting little item from which I picked out the following:

The use of the word ‘fall’ or ‘the fall’ to mean autumn is commonly assumed to be an Americanism, but in fact it is found in the works of Michael Drayton (1563-1631), Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) and Sir Walter Ralegh (1554-1618).

There is also a quotation from John Dryden (1631-1700) to back this up:

What crowds of patients the town doctor kills, Or how, last fall, he raised the weekly bills.

This is more appropriate for the USA than the UK nowadays as over here we now have the wonderful National Health System.

While contributing to a discussion on the e-astronomer, which subsequently evolved into an extended exercise in pedantry here, it struck me that many words we British think of as being Americanisms were in fact in common use over here in the 16th and 17th Centuries. This period marks the birth of American English as the language used by the colonials evolved fairly independently thereafter until films and television re-established contact in the 20th Century and set up a feedback loop. “Fall” seems to be another example of a word which carried on being used in mainstream American usage but was replaced over here by “autumn”.

Another example that strikes me is “gotten” which is commonplace in the USA but rarely used in England except in phrases like “ill-gotten gains”. It is used in Scotland and in other dialects, but in mainstream English is considered to be archaic, and the form “got” is generally used instead. As the past participle of the verb “to get”, however, it is by no means grammatically incorrect and it was a standard form in English during the 16th century and abounds in Shakespeare, such as in the phrase “He was gotten in drink” from The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Conversely and curiously we still use the form “forgotten” for the past participle of “forget” and the form “forgot” (as a participle) is considered archaic or poetic. The phrase “I have forgot much, Cynara! Gone with the wind” occurs in Ernest Dowson’s famous poem Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae, but it wouldn’t be considered correct in modern English prose.

There’s no real logic to all this, which is what makes it interesting…

Although hearing or reading the word “gotten” in contributions from the other side of the pond no longer jars, and I’ve always found the word “fall” to be rather poetic anyway, there are still some divergences that I can’t cope with. Once on a trip to the States I was alarmed when informed that the plane would be landing momentarily.

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