We’re well and truly in the heart of fall now, and that means seasonal words abound! Autumn and winter always seem to be the seasons described with the most poignant and evocative words — their proximity to the end of the year makes them the most appropriate seasons for reflection, and in our thoughtfulness we get poetic. Poe wrote of a “bleak December”, Keats of a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. There are so many words that can be used to express the melancholy of autumn, with its bittersweet sense of transition and its ephemeral beauty that becomes more faded as winter draws closer, that some exist solely to encapsulate the season’s most striking aspect: the colors.
I haven’t touched on the topic of color yet on this blog, but often color words are just as lovely as the colors they describe. Wisteria. Periwinkle. Vermilion. Cerulean. Ebony. Ever since I was a kid, with my 96-packs of Crayola crayons, I loved colors — and their names. They range from the uninspired (as a kid, out of necessity, I became an expert at telling apart “yellow green” and “green yellow”) to the borderline ridiculous. (Paint color names in particular reign supreme in this — you might be able to venture a guess as to what color “Dream I Can Fly” or “Wizard” might be, but some go far and beyond making sense. The mind boggles trying to visualize a color that might be described as “Going to the Chapel“, “New York State of Mind“, or “Pure Essence” [essence of what?]. And some are plainly misleading: “No-Nonsense” is bright and fun, and “Fire and Ice” probably isn’t at all the color you’d expect. The world of paint colors is wild.) But in the middle of the spectrum lie the colors that are perfectly named, descriptive enough that you can imagine them clearly but inspired enough to set themselves apart from the rest. Purple Mountain Majesty. October Mist. Feuillemorte.
We “borrowed” feuillemorte from French, where it exists as feuille-morte: literally, “dead leaf”. Although there’s no excusing the fact that English is a shameless lexical kleptomaniac, in this case I can understand why we chose to adopt the French word for this color instead of using our own translation. It is, in the way that words of the Romance languages so often seem to be, such an elegant word for an otherwise inelegant thing. It’s poetic and flowing, yet at the same time poignant and tolling. It’s an ode to the inevitable, an acknowledgement of what had to pass in order for the color to exist. It represents beauty and tragedy all in one.
There seems to be no consistent consensus on exactly what shade feuillemorte is supposed to be. Merriam-Webster seems quite certain it knows, offering a hilariously specific interpretation: “a brownish orange that is deeper and slightly redder than leather, yellower and deeper than spice, and yellower and deeper than gold pheasant”. But I have to disagree. Beyond the frankly pretentious implication that the average layperson knows what color “gold pheasant” is, I find myself rolling my eyes at how this definition feels like it misses the point of what a word like this can be. Autumn gets its distinctive character in part from the brilliant range of shades and hues it produces; any word having to do with the colors of autumn should embrace this. Feuillemorte could be ochre, auburn, russet, sienna, umber. It’s all of these at once, a mosaic of nature contained in a single word.
Autumn needs to stop getting such a bad rep. The older I get, the more I find that I appreciate it. As Keats observed, “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too”. Fall is an ending, yes, but in many ways it’s also a beginning: the beginning of sweater weather, of shorter days and cozier nights, of the holiday season (which, as we all know, is the best season of all). Its brilliant colors are an overture, interlude, and grand finale all at once. As the world changes around us, all the shades of feuillemorte serve as a reminder of what has been and what is still to be — but not without giving us a moment’s pause to appreciate what currently is. The world is exploding in a brilliant symphony. This is our chance to lend an ear and hear the colors in all their splendor before they quietly slip away.