Indian summer

AAllan at AOL.COM AAllan at AOL.COM
Thu Sep 30 13:55:46 UTC 1999

Time for a look at that great year-by-year book on American English,
_America in So Many Words_ by David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf
(Houghton Mifflin),
recently reissued in paperback:

1777 Indian summer

   We first encounter Indian summer in an essay on "A Snow Storm as it
affects the American Farmer," written sometime in the 1770s by a Frenchman
turned American farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. Here he describes
the approach of winter in the Hudson valley:
   "Great rains at last replenish the springs, the brooks, the swamps, and
impregnate the earth. Then a severe frost succeeds which prepares it to
receive the voluminous coat of snow which is soon to follow; though it is
often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian
Summer. This is in general the invariable rule: winter is not said properly
to begin until these few moderate days and the rising of the waters have
announced it to Man."
   Why the respite from the impending advance of winter was called Indian
summer is anybody's guess, and everybody has guessed. Perhaps it got its name
from Indians predicting it, or explaining it, to European settlers; perhaps
it was at a time of year when Indians moved to winter hunting grounds;
perhaps Indians even caused it by setting smoky fires to drive game out of
hiding. Those were some of the explanations offered early in the 19th century
after the term was well established.
   Whatever its origin, Indian summer became a fixture of American weather
and language. In the 19th century it acquired literary and figurative uses as
well. In 1843, for example, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote of "The Indian
Summer of the heart!" while in 1867 Oliver Wendell Holmes could mention "an
Indian summer of serene widowhood."

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