Wednesday, July 19, 2006


I love etymologies.

I'm working on my company's profile of Boeing right now, and I wrote a heading for one section, "September 11 fallout," and began to wonder: does the term fallout date from the nuclear age, or somewhen before? If the former, isn't it weird how quickly it became an established word to mean any number of things, and really how, when we use it, we don't really even think of its nuclear origins?

So I looked it up:

fall (v.)Look up fall at
O.E. feallan (class VII strong verb; past tense feoll, pp. feallen), from P.Gmc. *fallanan (cf. O.N. falla, O.H.G. fallan), from PIE base *phol- "to fall" (cf. Armenian p'ul "downfall," Lith. puola "to fall," O.Prus. aupallai "finds," lit. "falls upon"). Noun sense of "autumn" (now only in U.S.) is 1664, short for fall of the leaf (1545). That of "cascade, waterfall" is from 1579. Most of the figurative senses had developed in M.E. Meaning "to be reduced" (as temperature) is from 1658. To fall in love is attested from 1530; to fall asleep is 1393. Fall guy is from 1906. Fallout "radioactive particles" is from 1950. Fallen "morally ruined" is from 1628.

Turns out it is from the 1950s. Also interesting is the fact that the phrase "fall in love" dates from 1530. What did people say before that? Did people not fall in love before then? Surely they did, but how did they describe it to their friends, or to the person with whom they were falling in love?

Also: how strange — and strangely appropriate — that we often talk of fallout from a relationship gone bad, one into which we may have originally gotten by — that's right — falling in love.

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