Why We Still Fall In Love With Cornucopias

Discover how to differentiate between the word “fall” and “autumn”, and why this season is commonly associated with the cornucopia.

Naya Johnson, Columnist

What connotations for “fall” pop into your mind when you hear the commonly used word for the season? Crunchy leaf piles of red and gold, chilly nights, pumpkin pie, maybe even a squirrel or two, but the question of where the term “fall” came from, and why “autumn” means the same thing, rarely receives an answer from the public.

The term “fall” was originally short for “fall of the leaf,” an Anglo-Saxon phrase dating back to the 16th century describing the harvest season in England, according to Livescience. The word wasn’t very prominent, because many Englishmen, up until the 18th century, often focused on the more important and obvious seasons of the year, summer and winter. Because these two seasons were easily distinguishable and played a critical role in the cultivation of crops, the other two seasons, spring and fall, became shadows. Even when fall was recognized, early records have shown that, because the harvest season differed based on location, many people of the Postclassical centuries (500-1500 CE) were reluctant to classify it as an actual season, and rather categorized it as a growing period, says Slate. Over time, however, as a plethora of crops diffused over a variety of geographic boundaries, the harvest became more distinct, and “fall” thus became more applicable to society.

But that explanation doesn’t account for fall’s other name. What about “autumn?” “Autumn” lost popularity in England because it possessed French origins (deriving from “automne”), and as a long-standing rivalry persisted between France and England during these centuries (Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past), the term was discarded in favor of its English counterpart. Because Americans are more likely to lean towards English phrases than the French equivalents, “autumn” was continually overshadowed by “fall.” Today, this term is making a comeback in England, as it is considered to be a more formal way of referring to the harvest season. According to the Grammarist, English publications, as well as those of Australia, currently favor the usage of “autumn” over “fall”. In Canada and the United States, on the other hand, “fall” continues to be the most popular way to refer to the harvest.

As for the symbol of the cornucopia, it dates back to ancient Greece. Legend has it that the Greek deity, Zeus, broke off one of the horns of the goat, Amalthea, who raised him. In attempt to apologize for his deed, Zeus blessed the horn so that it would always be filled with whatever Amalthea desired, thus making it the “Horn of Plenty”. During the Renaissance, ancient Greek culture and lore became a central focus in European art, and the Horn of Plenty was often depicted in Renaissance paintings and imagery because of its connection to the ancient Greeks. The cornucopia is also associated with Hebrew culture, because it was a symbol embossed in coins, seals, and musical instruments as a means to bless royalty. The cornucopia actually became a symbol of the harvest much later, states Bright Hub Education. Recalling the Greek-turned-European myth of Amalthea’s Horn of Plenty, European colonists in North America thought of the cornucopia as a symbol of America, because America was said to have “… seemingly endless supply of game and produce” (Sue Ellen Thompson, Holiday Symbols).  America was considered blessed, and as such, the colonists (aka Pilgrims) gave thanks to God for allowing them to survive their first winter, and for granting them plentiful harvests in the years to come.

So whether you call it “fall” or “autumn”, “cornucopia” or “Horn of Plenty,” one thing is for certain: your harvest season will be even more plentiful with this abundance of interesting Thanksgiving history.