Dear Word Detective: Where did the phrase “Indian summer” come from? — Nancy Bernacet.
Good question, and an appropriate one given the season. “Indian summer” is, of course, the brief period of warm, dry weather often occurring in late autumn. Indian summer is often regarded as a temporary respite from the growing signs of winter, a last chance to enjoy outdoor activities and perhaps take a drive to enjoy the colorful fall foliage. Around here, it is also, unfortunately, regarded as the grand finale of the lawn mowing season, and participation seems to be mandatory. Since I was brought up to regard lawn mowing after Labor Day as barbaric, I just draw the curtains every year and hope for an early snow to render my indolence moot.
As I noted when I answered this question about eight years ago, there are several theories about the origin of “Indian summer,” but none considered the final word. The first occurrence of the phrase in print found so far is from a book written in 1778 by a French-American farmer, James Hector St. John de CrÃ¨vecoeur, describing late autumn in New York’s Hudson Valley: “… [the first snow] is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer.”
Several theories focus on that reference to smoke (which also occurs in other citations from the 18th and 19th centuries) explaining “Indian summer” as being the time when Indians were in the habit of setting fires to drive game out of hiding as part of one last big hunt before the arrival of the snow. Another theory ties the smoke to fires set by the Indians to clear fields for the next spring’s planting. It’s also said that Indians took advantage of that period of mild weather to move to their winter hunting grounds.
Some other explanations of the phrase are rooted in the less than idyllic relationship between European settlers and the Indians. One citation from 1824 explains that “The smokey time commenced and lasted for a considerable number of days. This was the Indian summer, because it afforded the Indians another opportunity of visiting the settlements with their destructive warfare.” The “Indian” in “Indian summer” may also be a derogatory use of “Indian” to mean “false or unreliable,” as found in the slur “Indian giver.”
Perhaps it’s better just to go with the explanation offered by the Indians themselves, recounted by a Boston clergyman in 1812: “This charming season is called the Indian Summer, a name which is derived from the natives, who believe that it is caused by a wind, which comes immediately from the court of their great and benevolent God Cautantowwit, or the south-western God.”