A Vocabulary for Fall

Kate Flora: When my boys were little, we used to have word lists posted on the refrigerator both to improve their vocabularies, and to encourage creativity and kindness in their name-calling. My family has always had a fascination with word play. My brother John is the world’s best (or worst) punster, and I own a zillion books about word origins and the development of language. I even have (of course) the giant two volume Oxford English Dictionary—the one with the little drawer and a magnifying glass—and I use it.

Once, early in the Thea Kozak series, I had a list on the wall of a dozen words for pain—she was always mixing it up with the bad guys—and another time it was pages of words for colors. What can I say? I’m a writer. I like words.

This week, the sudden, and unwanted, nip in the air sent me scurrying to my trusty Rodale’s Synonym Finder for words to describe what is happening, thinking it would be fun to share some of them with you, and Rodale’s was a bust.

I looked up autumn and got fall and harvest. I looked up equinox and it wasn’t there at all. Undaunted, I grabbed my Bartlett’s, source of a hundred epigrams, and sighed with relief. Words, crunchy, powerful, evocative words. There are those who see autumn as sadness and an end, and those for whom it is a time of ripening and crescendo.

Arthur Symons give us:

The gray-green stretch of sandy grass,

Indefinitely desolate;

A sea of lead, a sky of slate;

Already autumn in the air, alas!

And Matthew Arnold:

Coldly, sadly descends

The autumn evening. The field,

Strewn with its dank yellow drifts

Of withered leaves, and the elms,

Fad into dimness apace

And Tennyson captures what my small boys would have described as “happy sad,”

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,

Tears from the depths of some divine despair

Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,

In looking on the happy autumn fields,

And thinking of the days that are no more

As does Shelley:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling lit its own!

The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,

Sweet, though in sadness.

John Dryden gives us a good phrase for aging long:

Of no distemper, of no blast he died.

But fell like autumn fruit that mellowed


For some of us, autumn is a season for slowing down, and contemplation, as in this, from Thomas Hood:

I saw old Autumn in the misty morn

Stand shadowless like silence, listening to silence

These writers remind us to slow down and contemplate the world around us, and there is no better time for that than is fall, as the leaves turn, the fields grow golden, pumpkins ripen, and the last tomatoes struggle to turn red.

Do you have “fall” word that you like? A poem, a quote, and phrase that comes to mind as the days shorten and the air grows cool?





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13 Responses to A Vocabulary for Fall

  1. Lois Bartholomew says:

    What great quotes. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Art Taylor says:

    Great post here, Kate — and I love the idea of word lists. May have to take that up for our own son!

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Lovely, Kate! My lists this month (working on two books) are for February and April. Also love books on nature (one for Maine is Naturally Curious) that list what’s happening in nature each month. Good reminders, at minimum.

  4. Richard Carter says:

    I had not heard the Thomas Hood quote before, “I saw old autumn in the misty morn…” brilliant.
    My favorite quote, the one that always comes to mind in Fall, is by Albert Camus:
    “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
    Thank you for your post this morning and for introducing me to Thomas Hood.

  5. Thanks Kate! I think no season brings the mood fall does. And the metaphor! Maybe because I was an English major.
    But my parents also listened to a lot of folk-type music when I was a kid, which I think influenced me as a writer, particularly as far as mood and their relationship to words go. And while I love the nature stuff about fall, the mood stuff is what really gets me.
    I loved (and still love) the music of Ian Tyson, who wrote the beautiful Four Strong Winds (“Think I’ll go up to Alberta, weather’s good there in the fall…” and Summer Wages (“So I’ll work on the tow boats in my slippery city shoes, which I swore I would never do again/through the grey fog-bound straits where the cedars stand watching/ years are gambled and lost like summer wages”)
    And my big one, Bob Dylan:
    “If you’re travelin’ in the north country fair
    Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
    Remember me to one who lives there
    She once was a true love of mine
    If you go when the snowflakes storm
    When the rivers freeze and summer ends
    Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm
    To keep her from the howlin’ winds”

    • Karla Whitney says:

      Maureen, what a good reminder of ‘Four Strong Winds’. Neill Young’s youtube version brings chills, and reminds me of ‘A Prayer For Owen Meany’ by John Irving. For some reason every Fall I pull out Mary Oliver poems: In Blackwater Woods, and Wild Geese are favorites.
      “…Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again”.
      Words connecting all kinds of things. Thank you for your words Kate!

    • MCWriTers says:

      Two great songs, Maureen.


  6. Julianne says:

    For me it’s always the old Tom Rush song lyrics…
    See the geese in chevron flight
    a-laughin’ and a-racin’ on before the snow.
    They get the urge for going,
    and they have the wings to go.
    They get the urge for going
    when the meadow grass is a-turnin’ brown
    Summer’s empires are fallin’ down.
    Winter’s closing in.

  7. MCWriTers says:

    Karla…thanks for reminding me (us) about Mary Oliver. One of my faves.


  8. Amber Foxx says:

    I loved the songs and poems other commenters mentioned, especially the Tom Rush song. September here in Truth or Consequences NM is hot and sunny. In Hatch, the chiles are being harvested and roasted. No gray skies, no melancholy, no classic autumnal mood to the season. In Santa Fe, they just had their Fiesta with the burning of Zozobra, Old Man Gloom.

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