Thursday 3 November 2011

On skyfall

A correspondent from BBC Radio 4's Front Row calls to ask whether I have any views about the name of the new James Bond movie, Skyfall. Had I ever heard the word before?

I certainly had. Thanks to various children, I am aware of characters in Transformers universes with this name, and I recall an adventure fantasy from the 1980s which had a planet called Skyfall. And there was a striking use by W H Auden, in the charade (his first dramatic work) he wrote in 1928 and dedicated to Cecil Day Lewis, 'Paid on Both Sides', which has the vivid lines:

Though heart fears all heart cries for, rebuffs with mortal beat
Skyfall, the legs sucked under, adder's bite.

But apart from this, the coinage seems a somewhat predictable compound. Other words ending in fall in English are unremarkable - rainfall, snowfall, waterfall, and suchlike, alongside figurative extensions such as pitfall, landfall, and shortfall. It does lend itself to cosmic invention, though: a quick search on Google produces starfall, moonfall, planetfall, sunfall, and others. So skyfall is in good company. But we'll have to wait and see what motivates the title in this case.

I'm wondering if it's 'James Bond meets Chicken Licken'. You remember him? An acorn falls on his head, and he thinks the sky is falling down so he rushes off to tell the king? Maybe the new Bond baddy is Foxy Loxy in disguise.


  1. In Swedish skyfall means 'very heavy rain'. We've been using it forever, so please give it back.

  2. Apart from waterfall (and just possibly planetfall), English appears to prefer single syllable words as the first part of compounds of this kind, which is why I suppose we have "fallout" as opposed to "radiationfall".

    I wonder, does the word fallout to describe the aftermath of an accident, scandal, etc. occur in English before 1945?

  3. Nothing before 1950 in the OED.

  4. In almost all of the examples given, Xfall means the literal or metaphorical 'fall of (i.e. experienced by) X'.

    The exception is pitfall which means something which might result in a 'fall (experiencer unspecified) into X'.

    An exception not given is windfall — meaning a 'fall caused by X'.

    Skyfall is probably a 'fall of X' coining, but could conceivably mean 'fall from X'.

  5. In Icelandic, the word "skýfall" means 'very heavy rain" (ský = cloud).

  6. Chicken Licken? I've only heard Chicken Little... is this a US/UK difference?

  7. Yes, i think so, but I'm not sure how far the two naming traditions spread.

  8. Also sometimes Henny Penny but I don't know if this is of US, UK or other origen.

  9. There's a whole family of reduplicated names in the story, many of which are shared between US and UK. I have a chapter on this (and a picture of the eponymous chicken) in my 'The Story of English in 100 Words' (Profile, 2011).

  10. "Planetfall" is surely the science fiction equivalent of "landfall", "a reaching of land", and "skyfall" a deliberately paradoxical take on "landfall", rather than the "Chicken Little" idea of the sky falling on our heads.

    Curious, though, that "landfall" and "waterfall", which a Martian making planetfall on Earth might think ought to be connected, in fact denote totally different concepts.