Indian summer

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Sep 30 18:33:42 UTC 1999

David Bergdahl wrote:

>Natalie Maynor wrote:
>> I don't know the origin of the term, but I've noticed lately what
>> seems to be a change underway in its usage.  I've always assumed that
>> it meant a brief return of summer-like weather in the fall, after having
>> had cooler weather.  Lately, however, I've heard it used to refer to
>> the first cool days in fall.
>Earlier, weathercasters would lecture us not to call it "Indian Summer"
>until after the first frost, so there are two changes--one, a loosening of
>the requirement from "first frost" to "cooler weather" and then to the
>cooler weather itself; is this an example of a northern term being
>reinterpreted for a southern clime?  When frost comes late in the fall
>there would not be a warmer period following.
>Is there a "January thaw" effect here?  In S. Ohio, where Decembers can be
>mild and what little snow we have comes in March, a cold January can be
>followed by bulb flowers appearing by the end of the month.  In upstate N.
>Y. where snow comes in November and can still be found under bushes in May,
>a warmer period in January is distinctive.  Yet weathercasters talk about
>January thaws here. . . as if the ground had ever really been frozen solid!
>I think we like these expressions and apply them when we can,
>reinterpreting them when we can't.

And I think it's significant that "Indian summer" always has a positive
tinge, not so much 'warmer' or 'cooler' but 'milder' (which also works on
both scales).  I've never heard the "new use" (70s weather after a spate of
90s days), but I am aware of a relaxation in New England usage where it's
now used for an unusually mild spell after colder days in the fall, even if
there hasn't first been a "killing frost", which I always thought was a
requirement for what is technically Indian summer.  As for the U.S./Britain
question, I remember being struck by a chapter title in Galsworthy's
Forsyte Saga called The Indian Summer of Old Jolyon; very British context
for what I had believed was an Americanism.  Evidently, it did make it
across the Pond some time ago.


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