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October in a linguistic (autumnal) nutshell

As October draws to a close, we thought it might be fun to share some October-related language facts.

1. Spring forward, fall back

Did you remember to put your clocks back an hour yesterday?

We all know that the clocks change twice a year, but it can be confusing to remember in which direction!

In English, we have a mnemonic (handy saying) for this: “Spring forward, fall back.”

Spring forward invokes the leaping of lambs in springtime and reminds us to jump forward, i.e., move the time on the clock forward in spring.

Likewise a play on words, fall back cleverly reminds us that in autumn – or fall in American English (see below) – the hour hand falls, or is turned backwards.

Indeed, the phrase was coined in the US in the 1920s following the implementation of daylight saving in the early 1900s.

2. Trick or treat!

The other big event of the month is, of course, happening today: Halloween.

Children the length and breadth of the UK will be out in force tonight, trick-or-treating around their neighbourhood, all dressed up in their Halloween costumes.

The custom is to go door-to-door demanding “trick or treat!” The homeowner must then decide between offering their costumed callers sweets (treat) or risking mischief and mayhem being unleashed (trick).

Although essentially a long-practiced tradition in the UK under various guises (including, in fact, “guising”), it was not until the 1980s that the phrase “trick or treat” arrived here from the US (1930s), via Canada (late 1920s).

3. Halloween

And what about the linguistic origins of Halloween?

Well, you may also have heard Halloween, or 31 October referred to as “All Saints’ Eve” or “All Hallows’ Eve”. 31 October is the day before the Christian All Saints’ Day celebration.

This helps us pick apart and make sense of the etymology of Halloween.

Simply put: Halloween – or Hallowe’en as it is also sometimes spelled – can be broken down into the elements hallow and een, or e’en:

  • Hallow is derived from the Old English for holy person or saint: haliga, halga.

(Eagle-eyed German speakers will spot the similarities here with the modern-day word for holy in German: heilig.)

  • Een / e’en is the contracted form of even, the Old English for eve, which we recognise as meaning evening or the day before a particular event.

Its specific meaning as “the day before a saint’s day or festival” dates from the late 1400s.

Thus, Halloween = the day before the celebration of the saints, i.e., the day before All Saints’ Day.

4. Autumn vs fall

As linguists, localisation is part and parcel of what we do. We need to be able to deftly render language and cultural-specific content in the original text into an understandable form for the target audience.

Sometimes, these might be pretty complex “foreign” concepts that require some degree of comparison or paraphrasing. Other times, a less complex, yet equally important form of localisation is required: respect for the target language variant.

While speakers of British and American English are generally able to understand each other without any difficulty, there are some differences between the two language variants in terms of spelling (UK localisation vs US localization, for example), grammar (most notably the use of the Oxford comma) and terminology – like autumn vs fall.

The season between summer and winter is one of vibrant coloured leaves on the trees falling to the ground. It is therefore clear how the season earned its name fall, the variant favoured in the US.

The origin behind the season name autumn is, however, slightly more obscure. French speakers will notice the similarity between our autumn and the French automne. Both are rooted in the Latin autumnus, or auctumnus. Beyond that, though, no one quite knows where the Latin for autumn came from!

Interestingly, both autumn (dating back to the 1300s) and fall (which came into popular usage in the 1500s for its more poetic nature) originated in the UK, and both were linguistic imports to North America during Britain’s colonisation of the New World. Fall then went on to, well, fall out of fashion in the UK in favour of autumn, while in the US, the reverse happened.

5. October

Although we all know October as the tenth month of the year, this was not always so…

In the Roman calendar, October was, in fact, the eighth month.

When this calendar was replaced by the version we know and live by today, the month of October moved to tenth position, but simply retained its original name.

October comes from the Latin for “eighth”: octavus. And when we know this, we can start to draw the dots and think of other words relating to eight with the root oct-: octopus, octagon, octogenarian…

Isn’t etymology cool?!

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