The Fall Before

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.

7 Responses to “The Fall Before”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Was the plane falling toward the runway or autumning?

    And I thought that a momentary landing was known as a go-round…

    The cost of the NHS is high because: (1)biomedical research has given us many more options for treatment today than 60 years ago when the NHS was founded; (2) there are four times as many administrators per doctor/nurse in the NHS than in private hospitals – which everybody agrees are run better. To me the solution is obvious: give 2/3 of NHS administrators six months notice and say it is up to individual institutions how they re-organise themselves; and get a committee of elected accountable MPs, informed by consultants, to decide what treatments should be available on the NHS and what would need private top-up. And give us our money back in lower taxes, which fall hardest on poorer people.


  2. telescoper Says:

    I was on a plane once that got a go-round at Heathrow. It wasn’t all that exciting though, it was just because somebody saw – or thought they saw – something on the runway.

    I agree with a lot of what you say about the NHS and “managers”, but it’s true all across the public sector. Universities now have hoards of entirely useless administrators while most departments are short of teaching staff. My experience with the NHS is not bad at all, although I admit this is far from the universal experience, and it actually considerably cheaper than the privatised system in the USA.

  3. Peter – is there a reason to suspect that more seventeenth century English will have been frozen into American English after the split than in English English ? There should be some inverse examples ….

  4. telescoper Says:

    Andy, perhaps English (being a thoroughly mongrel language) continued to influenced by French and German developments while American did not, at least not in the same way. You can see the same effect in Canadian French (which I’m told is quite like 17th Century French French) and in Afrikaans which is like old Dutch.

    Of course I simplified a lot. The two languages weren’t really totally independent, although conscious efforts were made to make them more so at the end of the 18th century.

    I’ve always been interested to know why American cars have a trunk while ours have a boot. That must be a word that swapped over to cars from coaches which must have happened earlier than the invention of the motor car…

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    American cars have a trunk because they are white elephants.


  6. Adrian Burd Says:

    I suspect Peter is correct in that English was influenced more by French and German, whereas American was influenced more by Spanish and the native cultures that were already here.

  7. telescoper Says:

    Another interesting one is why we have a “u” in words like “honour”. It seems to me that this comes from French, as the latin root words of this type always end -or. But spelling is much more difficult to understand than actual word usage. People often think of the ending -ize as an Americanism, but it is actually the Oxford preferred spelling. However virtually all crosswords use -ise. To be ultra-pedantic you should probably use -ize for words with a greek root (e.g.. analyze and polarize) and -ise for words with a latin root (e.g. generalise). The problem with this is that you might not know where the word comes from….

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