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Autumn: the defining season


The long, hot summer of 2020 officially ends at 7:31 a.m. MDT Tuesday, Sept. 22: the fall equinox.

In much of the country, autumn is, of course, when leaves start turning from green to gold and orange. In New Mexico, it’s when we roast chile.

“Equinox” and “autumn” are aequus (Latin for equal) in their loveliness, because each leads to multiple opportunities for word play; to wit:

The rest of equinox, nox, means “night.” It is just about the only Latin root word I can think of that is spelled the same in the English version. Usually, there are several vowels, a couple of tildes and a hyphen or two separating the Latin from the English – or perhaps they just highlight the yawning gap in my classical education.

The word autumn comes from the Middle English autumpne and the Latin autumnus. I like the Latin version particularly, i.e., “There’s a certain autumnus in the fall air.” According to Wiktionary, the plural vocative case (it’s a noun thing) of autumnus is autumni. That sounds to me like a bunch of rich people partaking of some decadent pleasure: “While the rest of us rake leaves, just look at all the autumni idling in the fall weather, sipping margaritas in their enclosed porches and laughing at us. I hate the autumni.”

Wiktionary says the origin of autumnus is unclear, but it could be based on a Lithuanian word, austi, which means “to cool off.” There is also a possibility that it comes from the Proto-Indo-European h₂sows, which means dry. It may also have been influenced by auctus: enriched, enlarged, ample.

All of this may explain why we often just call it the fall.

Por ciertoI (by the way), I also love the Spanish name for fall; esto es (to wit): “Mi estación favorita es el otoño.”

Now for the tutorial:

“During the equinox, the Sun crosses what we call the ‘celestial equator,’ an imaginary extension into space of Earth’s equator line,” according to www.almanac.com. “The equinox occurs precisely when the Sun’s center passes through this line. When the Sun crosses the equator from north to south, this marks the autumnal equinox; when it crosses from south to north, this marks the vernal (spring) equinox.”

Leaves don’t change color because of falling temperatures, as one might think. It’s actually a response to the lessening of daylight. That’s apparently also what dictates the thickening and thinning of animals’ coats.

There is a bit of folklore that says if you catch a falling leaf on the first day of autumn, it will bring you good luck.

Felix autumnus!

Equinox, autumn