We’re not experiencing it yet where I live (outside of Boston), but it’s that time of year when people start talking about “Indian summer.” I’ve seen a few references to this seasonal quirk lately (including one in something I was editing), and it seems an appropriate topic to discuss today.
What is Indian summer and where does this term come from?
Let’s tackle the origin first, then come back to the meaning.
As with so many words and phrases, there’s debate over precisely where and when this one arose. But most sources put it in the same general time and place: late Colonial America, sometime between the 1770s and 1790s. The term had probably been in use for some time.
There seems to be some confusion with the early citations. Some suggest that the first known use was in 1778; others point to 1790; some to 1813 (some of these cite the same author and document, but assign different dates to it). Later 19th century uses are easy enough to document, it’s only the earliest ones that are fuzzy.
When you spend time delving into word origins, you begin to get a feel for which sources are more (or less) reliable and which origin stories are less (or more) believable. I’ve noticed that when a word is legitimately new, writers often include an explanation. That is, the word isn’t simply used, it’s also explained and defined, as if the writer doesn’t expect the reader to have encountered it before. On the other hand, if a word is already well established, it’s very unusual for an explanation to be given: the word is used, unselfconsciously, and that’s that.
Early citations for Indian summer show no doubt that it was well known by the 1830s. Users by then take no time to explain it. But slightly earlier citations straddle a line, sometimes implying that the term was known to readers, sometimes not. I say ‘implying’ because this isn’t at all definitive.
While a first use date is opaque — let’s settle on mid to late 18th century — the etymological and geographical origin is less debated. All reliable sources point to North America, which at that time would have meant the coastal colonies.
It can be said with certainty that this term has no connection to the Indian subcontinent, although you’ll find that theory if you look around. This seems to be a modern misconception, possibly (but not certainly) within the past half century. It’s easy to see how someone could get that impression. The BBC series (running on PBS now) “Indian Summers,” set in early 20th-century British colonial India, doesn’t help. But suggestions that the phrase and the weather it describes have Indian origins are unsupported.
On the other hand, Indian summer is no stranger to the British. Even though it’s a term of American origin, used to describe weather most often associated with North America, it’s long been embraced in the UK. It was already used widely enough by 1916 that the government Meteorological Office (since 2000 officially the “Met Office”) included it in their first Meteorological Glossary. They defined it as “a warm, calm spell of weather occurring in autumn, especially in October and November.”
It shouldn’t shock anyone that although Indian summer has long been the accepted term throughout the English-speaking world, there are other words for this phenomenon in other languages and cultures. After all: the word merely labels a particular weather event, it doesn’t create that event. Indian summers have probably occurred for as long as there have been summers, and something like it can happen in most temperate locations — it isn’t exclusive to North America.
In Britain, they once called it All-hallown summer or Old Wives’ summer. The first term seems to have died out long ago, but it’s reported that the second is still sometimes used. It’s known by a variation of “Altweibersommer” in many European countries; also “gypsy summer,” “poor man’s summer,” “little summer,” and even sometimes the “halcyon days.” Wikipedia lists a few more. (As someone who teaches others how to recognize quality sources, I’m obliged to remind you that wikipedia is not a reliable source. We’ll admit it in this case for expediency.)
That brings us to the definition. What does the term actually mean? As with its origin, there’s some dispute. Indian summer, it seems, might almost be considered a state of mind rather than a forecast. It’s one of those things most people recognize, but everyone has a slightly different idea of what it means. It’s weather pornography. I’ll do my best to walk the line of consensus, but to note points of contention.
The dictionaries keep it bland. Here’s American Heritage: “A period of mild weather occurring in late autumn.”
Some individuals insist, quite stridently, that an Indian summer can take place only after the first frost. Many disagree. There’s enough slack in the meaning of this word that it might be considered a regionalism: in some places, Indian summer is simply warm weather after cool; in others, the first frost rule holds firm.
Those who won’t budge on the frost idea sometimes invoke the National Weather Service to support their claims, but that’s a mistake. Their definition is fairly simple: “An unseasonably warm period near the middle of autumn, usually following a substantial period of cool weather.” You’ll note no mention of frost.
This isn’t to say that frosts are never involved. During the time of year we’re talking about, October or November (and also frequently late September), a frost may have happened before an Indian summer kicks in. But correlation is not causality: they shouldn’t be seen as linked events. A frost can take place, but have no Indian summer follow, just as an Indian summer can happen without a frost.
What it comes down to is that the criteria for Indian summer are largely subjective: words like “mild” and “cool” and “warm” are not terms with absolute definitions. They’re terms with relative meaning. What qualifies as “cool” or “mild” for one person might not qualify for another. We’re not getting undisputed measurements, or even putting it to a vote and agreeing to the majority decision. Instead, it’s the sense of the thing.
The sharp-eyed might have noticed that the dictionary definition above pins Indian summer to “late autumn” while NWS goes with “near the middle of autumn.” Specific timing is another point of contention. Merriam-Webster pushes it later, placing it “in late autumn or early winter”; the OED is happy with “late autumn” but polishes the definition to require “unusually calm dry warm weather, often accompanied by a hazy atmosphere,” qualifiers which the others omit.
An example of how arbitrary some definitions can be comes from The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which has by far the strictest qualifying time frame, insisting that Indian summer can only take place in a 10-day window from November 11th to November 20th.
The almanac doesn’t make a hard frost a strict criteria, but they bring up the idea of haze as a component. Haze appears in other sources (such as the OED), but it’s not a consensus requirement. The almanac also suggests that the term might originate with Native American attacks on early settlers. Based on all the sources I’ve looked at, this seems like folk hogwash. The Old Farmer’s Almanac can be a fun read, but so can the horoscopes, and at its core a lot of the accumulated wisdom of the almanac is “science” in the same way that astrology is. It’s hard not to see it as a male-oriented collection of old wives’ tales (‘old geezer’s gab?’) that’s taken on a patina of respectability over the years. This is a publication that bases it’s forecasts on “sure-fire (?) methods for predicting the weather…based on animals’ signals, cloud types, and even pig spleens!” It’s tongue-in-cheek to an extreme.
I’m comfortable dismissing the ‘native attack season’ idea for several reasons, the most obvious that there’s no contemporary evidence for it. Until some is uncovered, that idea stays in the folk etymology file.
If you aren’t satisfied with my Indian summer summary and keep searching the web, you’ll find other meanings, some originating from ignorance.
A few people have been so turned around that they’ve come to believe that the metaphorical Indian summer — American Heritage’s second definition, “A pleasant, tranquil, or flourishing period occurring near the end of something” — is the original definition. That’s putting the cart before the horse.
There have been attempts to equate Indian summer with “Indian giver,” based on the idea that the warm weather of an Indian summer is quickly taken away. That’s colorful and, as with everything else in this post, it’s impossible to say with 100% certainty that it’s wrong. But there are problems here. One is that the definition of Indian giver or “Indian gift” in the early 19th century was somewhat different from the way it’s used today; the other is that Indian giver has a later origin. This origin story for Indian summer probably comes from later confusion, and might even be from the 20th century.
Which isn’t to say that there are no Native American associations. The reliable ones are positive, however. Here’s a 1902 reference in the Journal of American Folklore, connecting Indian summer to both European and native traditions, and describing Indian summer in only pleasant terms:
The “second summer” or “short season of pleasant weather, usually occurring about the middle of November,” corresponding to the European “St. Martha’s summer,” “Summer of All Saints,” etc. The term is said to have originated “from the custom of the Indians to avail themselves of this delightful time for harvesting their corn; and the tradition is that they were accustomed to say that they had always a second summer of nine days just before the winter set in.”
For those who believe that Indian summer is both predictable and bound to a short window, here’s what one British meteorologist has noted:
The idea there are particular times of the autumn in Britain when these warm spells might recur is a fanciful one. Detailed statistical analyses do not suggest that any one week is more favoured than any other, and in a few years autumn brings relentlessly disturbed weather with a progressive drop in temperature, and there is nothing remotely Indian summer-like at all.
The is true in North America, where even in the same year different regions can experience (or not experience) Indian summer at different points in time.
In case you’re wondering: typographically, a small minority of users capitalize both words. This isn’t standard, and no major source capitalizes the “summer” portion.
Here’s a photo of a couple of my farmer friends harvesting popcorn at Drumlin Farm (Lincoln, MA) late last September. Fun fact: popcorn might have been the first variety of corn ever cultivated.