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COME, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil :
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing harvest home.
Robert Herrick (1591&endash;1674). "The Hock-Cart Or Harvest Home."
According to the OED, until about 1600, harvest was preferred over autumn to describe the season between Summer and Winter. Harvest as a noun is
1. The act or process of gathering a crop.
  • 2a. The crop that ripens or is gathered in a season.
  • b. The amount or measure of the crop gathered in a season.
  • c. The time or season of such gathering.
3. The result or consequence of an activity (AHD).
In earlier eras, when life was more closely tied to an agricultural and pastoral calendar and rural living, it made sense for autumn to be seen as the season of harvest, when we cut down crops and livestock and prepare food for winter storage. In that context, the etymology of harvest is very telling. Modern English harvest is from Middle English, via Old English hærfest. Harvest has a proto Indo-European root of *kerp-, which, the AHD tells us, means "To gather, pluck, harvest." The same PIE root also gives us carpet; excerpt, scarce, all of which are derived from Latin carpere, to pluck. These are all words that have to do with cutting, or removing something from a larger whole. Herrick's poem "The Hock-Cart or Harvest Home" is all about the seasonal plucking of crops in the fall. The Hock-cart was the last cart carrying home the harvest, and was frequently decorated and served as the center piece for various traditional English harvest celebrations. You might already be familiar with Latin carpere, to pluck, from the expression carpe diem, which I'll write about next time.


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