Indian sign (1895, 1897)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Tue Apr 12 06:00:15 UTC 2005

On Sun, 10 Apr 2005 21:17:21 -0400, Douglas G. Wilson <douglas at NB.NET> wrote:

>What was the basis for "Indian sign"? A hand signal (as in 'Indian sign
>language')? A symbolic mark of some kind, for religious or magical purposes
>or maybe for trail-blazing? Does anybody know?

I don't know what the basis was, but there might be some insight in "The
Indian Sign", a story written by Allen Sangree for the _Saturday Evening
Post_ (Sep. 9, 1911), also published in Sangree's collection _The Jinx:
Stories of the Diamond_.  Unfortunately, the American Periodicals Series
on Proquest only has the _Evening Post_ up to 1885.

Another possible lead to track down is a piece about the expression
written by Peter Tamony (a frequent contributor to _AmSp_) published in
the _San Francisco Newsletter and Wasp_, where Tamony had a column, "The
Origin of Words": <>.

Charles Funk lists "Indian sign" in _Heavens to Betsy!_ (1955), but he
doesn't say much about the origin of the expression -- only that Frederick
Webb Hodge defines the expression in _The Handbook of American Indians_
(1907) as "a Western colloquialism of the earlier settlement days for the
trace of the recent presence of Indians."  I don't see how this
necessarily relates to the 'jinx' sense.

--Ben Zimmer

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