Of American-English origin, the phrase spring forward, fall back serves as a mnemonic for remembering that:
– when daylight-saving time [note 1] comes into effect, in spring, the clocks must be set one hour ahead of the local standard time;
– when daylight-saving time ends, in fall (i.e. in autumn [note 2]), the clocks must be set back one hour.
The earliest occurrence of the phrase spring forward, fall back that I have found is from The Brooklyn Citizen (Brooklyn, New York) of Saturday 25th April 1936:
Remember to Put Clocks Hour Ahead on Retiring
Turn your timepieces ahead at 2 a. m. to-morrow when Daylight Saving Time goes into effect. “Spring forward—Fall back,” is the way to remember the direction. Residents of more than 1,000 cities, towns and hamlets in eleven States, Canada, Hawaii and the Philippines will join in the mass movement.
Many of the localities will observe the custom for the first time. Connecticut has repealed its law forbidding the public display of any other but Eastern Standard Time; Rochester, one of the cities which has hitherto refused to make the change, will turn its collective clock ahead, and in New Hampshire, where an anti-daylight saving time statute still stands, twenty-one cities will ignore it.
A considerable portion of the world instituted the sun-saving time from a week to a month ago. Great Britain, France and Belgium adopted the schedule last Sunday, and other Continental countries observing it include the Soviet Republics, the Netherlands and Portugal.
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase spring forward, fall back that I have found is from The Brooklyn Citizen (Brooklyn, New York) of Saturday 23th April 1938:
Turn Your Clock Ahead For Daylight Savings
It’s forward you turn your clocks tonight. Spring forward, Fall back, you know.
At 2 a. m. tomorrow, Daylight Saving Time goes into effect and you won’t regain the lost hour of sleep until Sept. 25 when the time-pieces are turned back.
Railroads and other transportation lines, will adjust their time-tables to conform with the summer arrangement.
And now for some statistics: More than 145,000,000 in North America and Europe will observe Daylight Saving Time this year, according to the Merchants Association of New York: 30,000,000 in the United States, 3,000,000 in Canada and 112,000,000 in Europe.
The earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase spring forward, fall back in British/Irish English is from The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Saturday 24th December 1977. This newspaper published the annual general knowledge test taken by the students of King William’s College, Isle of Man, consisting of 170 questions:
1 Red root put up to order.
2 Richard of York gave battle in vain.
3 Pa, may we all go too?
4 Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.
5 All cows eat grass.
6 Spring forward, fall back.
7 Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.
[cf. note 3 for the answers]
The second-earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase spring forward, fall back in British/Irish English is from The night sky over Ulster, by Dr. Mart de Groot, Director of the Armagh Observatory, published in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Saturday 29th September 1979:
Remembering the mnemonic “Spring forward, Fall back,” our clock should be put back one hour on the week-end October 27/28. Officially, you are supposed to do it at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning! — so, do it on Saturday evening, and do not forget that you will have an extra hour on Sunday.
A variant of the phrase, spring forward, fall backward, occurs for example in the column This . . . And That, published in The Morning Call (Allenstown, Pennsylvania) of Sunday 29th September 1946:
Did you turn your clock back last night?
To avoid the clock confusion at start and end of daylight time, an unknown writer suggested this rule: Spring forward; Fall backward.
The phrase has been used punningly, for example with reference to the human body as in So who can save?, by Charlie Robins, published in The Tampa Times (Tampa, Florida) of Tuesday 28th April 1970:
Somehow, I let Daylight Saving Time sneak up on me this year without offering my traditional column of advice on what to do with your clock.
I suppose it’s just as well, because I never can remember what to do with my own clock, much less yours.
Last year, a friend tried to help out by telling me, “Remember, spring forward, fall back, and you won’t get confused.”
But it didn’t do any good. I sprang forward and fell back all day, and still got confused when I tried to set the clock. In fact, I was so tired I just sprang forward into bed, fell back on the pillow, and woke up an hour late by my clock — and two hours late by the boss’ clock.
Another punning use of the phrase occurs in the following letter, published in the Drogheda Independent (Drogheda, County Louth and County Meath, Ireland) of Friday 23rd November 2001:
Spring forward, Fall back
Fr. Pat Deighan, Laytown writes on time going back and the adjustment of clocks: ‘Far from pooh-poohing calendrical or horological precision, I nonetheless once again reluctantly adjusted my time-piece recently in line with the extra autumnal hour in bed, aided and abetted by the easy-to-remember ‘Spring Forward, Fall back’ clue. However, I am likewise ever ready to spring forward to fall back, as it were, on the time-free, non-mechanical dawn-sunset rhythms of Mother nature, as a form of therapy in a very go-go world.
‘Musing on Hilaire Belloc’s ‘I am a sundial and I make a botch of what is done much better by a watch’ (From ‘On a Sundial’) [note 4], it seems to me, without a shadow of a doubt, that the sundial, unlike the watch, is less likely to botch the notch of the exact millisecond between the end of one thing and the start of another.
‘Wherefore, I prefer to ignore the precise pip of an atomic clock registering noon, for example, and de-clock myself to allow the measuring of minutes to drain away into a silence outside time. Hence my nostalgia for the good old days when we relied on the ability of a dandelion to give us the time even though there was always one seed that refused to be blown off. Or, my preference for delightfully casual catch-phrases such as ‘I’ll be with you in the squeezing of a lemon’ (Oliver Goldsmith [note 5]) rather than 3 o’clock sharp (which is rarely sharp anyway!)’.
1 Daylight-saving time (abbreviated to DST) is adopted to achieve longer evening daylight in summer.
In British English, this is more usually referred to as British Summer Time (abbreviated to BST), one hour in advance of Greenwich Mean Time (abbreviated to GMT)—GMT being used informally to refer to Universal Time Coordinated (UTC).
(British Standard Time (abbreviated to BST) was the standard time used experimentally in the United Kingdom from 18th February 1968 to 31st October 1971, one hour in advance of GMT (UTC), equivalent to Central European Time and British Summer Time but in force throughout the year.)
—source: Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2008)
2 There are two English words denoting the season between summer and winter:
– fall, which is a shortening of the earlier phrase fall of the leaf;
– autumn, which, via Anglo-Norman and Middle French autompne and Middle French automne, is from classical Latin autumnus, of uncertain origin.
(The usual word in Old English and Middle English was harvest.)
Although common in British English in the 16th century, by the end of the 17th century fall had been overtaken by autumn as the primary term for this season.
In early North-American use, both terms were in usage, but fall had become established as the more usual term by the early 19th century.
It also long survived in usage in other varieties and dialects, especially in fixed phrasal expressions such as fall of the year and, until the early 20th century, in collocation with spring.
—source: Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2017)
1, Palindrome; 2, Mnemonic for spectrum; 3, Mnemonic for long vowels; 4, All alphabet; 5, Spaces of bass clef; 6, BST and GMT; 7, Typing test (or teleprinter).
4 “I am a sundial, and I make a botch / Of what is done much better by a watch” is a quotation from On a Sundial (1938), by the British poet, essayist, historian, novelist and Liberal politician Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953).
5 “I’ll be with you in the squeezing of a lemon” is a quotation from She Stoops to Conquer: or, The Mistakes of a Night (Belfast: James Magee, 1773), a comedy by the Irish novelist, poet, essayist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74).