September: the heart sinks a little, the light dims, evenings draw in and there is every reason to feel self-pityingly mournful. Helpfully, there is nothing I enjoy more than feeling self-pityingly mournful, so I don't mind.

Melancholics love autumn. Keats wrote an ode for the season, and Verlaine excelled himself with his "Chanson d'automne": "The long sobs/Of the violins/Wound my heart/With a monotonous/Languor." It would be enough to make you hoot, if it weren't so eye-crossingly depressing. The point is whether you take comfort from sadness, or find it repellent. I strongly recommend the first approach - it makes the season infinitely more bearable.

It was only recently that we began to use the word "autumn". When I say recently I mean the 16th century, but in etymological terms that's five minutes ago. Before "autumn" we called it "harvest", an obvious reference to the season's chief activity. Harvest somehow seems like a pastime of a former age, one in which milkmaids were seduced by poetically inclined farmhands and people sang in the fields before clinking mugs of warm beer in the evening sun. I remember the harvest festival at primary school - we dutifully brought in cans of baked beans and left them at the local church in some sort of baffling (at least to a class of six-year-olds), 20th-century emulation of an ancient tradition. It all seemed out of date.

I'm glad we switched to autumn for the word's sake, too - it has more mystery than harvest, with that strangely silent "n" at the end, which changes the way it feels in your mouth. The word comes from the Latin autumnus (origin unknown) and, unlike the American "fall", it describes precisely nothing about the season. All in all, it's a puzzle. But I wonder why, when the time came to ditch "harvest", no one considered co-opting the old Irish term. It's a wonderful word - fogamar - meaning "under-winter". Perhaps, though, that definition unfairly diminishes a season rich in its own associations - the leaves, the back-to-school dread, the smell of woodsmoke and toast. Autumn is much more than just a precursor to winter. As Keats declared to the season, "thou hast thy music too".

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister