Episode 293: September 29, 2011
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Fall officially began last week, and you might recall that the new season coincided with the time of the autumnal equinox. But you might be wondering what “equinox” means and how the autumnal equinox and the spring equinox compare to the winter solstice and the summer solstice. In this episode we’ll discuss the distinctions and also address the difference between the words “autumn” and “fall” and when to capitalize those and other seasonal words.
An equinox, which literally means an “equal night,” occurs when the sun’s path crosses the plane of the earth’s equator, making day and night of about equal length throughout the earth. This happens twice a year — about March 21 (for the spring equinox) and about September 23 (for the autumnal equinox); those are the dates for the Northern Hemisphere; they’re switched for the Southern Hemisphere. (A helpful visual guide can be accessed at http://www.athropolis.com/sunrise/def-sol2.htm.) The equinoxes are also called the vernal equinox and fall equinox (1).
The word “solstice” means “sun standing" (2). There are two solstices: the summer solstice (on about June 21) and the winter solstice (on about December 21). The solstices refer to the times in the year when the sun’s rays reach their southernmost point on the planet (the Tropic of Capricorn) and their northernmost point on the planet (the Tropic of Cancer) (3).
Another way to look at it is that, in the Northern Hemisphere, “the summer solstice occurs at the point in the earth’s orbit where the earth’s axis of rotation points most TOWARD the sun, and the winter solstice occurs at the point in the earth’s orbit where the earth’s axis of rotation points most AWAY from the sun" (4).
What most people in the Northern Hemisphere probably associate with solstices is that the summer solstice is the day of the year with the most daylight and the winter solstice is the day each year with the least daylight; the opposite is the case for those living in the Southern Hemisphere.
Season Names: Autumn and Fall
While we’ve been on the subject of seasons, you might have wondered about the word “autumn” compared to “fall.” In the British Isles, the term “autumn” has been used since the 1300s, and the phrase “the fall of the leaf” or just “the fall” was used from the 1500s until about 1800. After that time, “autumn” became the common seasonal term in Britain. According to The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, “whereas ‘the fall of the leaf’ (less frequently ‘the fall of the year’) and then ‘fall’ by itself gradually became standard in America from the late 17th century onwards" (5). However, one exception for American usage of “autumn,” instead of “fall,” is with the autumnal equinox.
Capitalizing Seasons — or Not
Let’s conclude with one more seasonal-related topic that you might be wondering about: when to lowercase and when to capitalize the seasons of the year. Here’s the rule: Lowercase “fall,” “autumn,” “winter,” “spring,” and “summer” unless the word is part of a proper name. For example:
Winter Olympics is capitalized because it’s the formal name of an event.
winter sports is lowercase because it’s simply descriptive.
Fall Semester 2011 is capitalized because it’s the formal name of a semester.
fall schedule is lowercase because it’s simply descriptive.
And, you may have noticed from earlier in this article that you would lowercase “spring equinox” and “summer solstice.”*
Now you know the difference between the words “equinox” and “solstice,” “autumn” and “fall,” and when to capitalize or lowercase seasonal names.
This article was written by Geoff Pope, who teaches English at City University of Seattle. He can be found online at www.geoffpope.com. This article was edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, the author of the new book 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again.