With all the discussion these days about being politically correct I’ve heard a lot of people asking about the term “Indian summer,” so I decided to do a little digging. I learned that “Indian summer” refers to a spell of warm, calm, dry, hazy weather brought in by southwesterly breezes. Indian summer days are warm and the nights are clear and chilly. However, it is only a true Indian summer if there has been a killing frost preceding the warm weather. It is usually late October or early November.
The first recorded use of the term, “Indian summer” appeared in a letter written by a French-American soldier turned farmer named John de Crevecoeur dated January 17, 1778. In his description of “Mohawk country” (upstate New York) he wrote, “Sometimes the rain is followed by an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness.” Since he wrote, “it is called the Indian Summer,” it would seem the term was in popular usage by that time.
Not long after de Crevecoeur wrote his description of Indian summer the Farmers’ Almanac, added a proverb to their publication, “If All Saints’ Day [November 1] brings out winter, St. Martin’s Day [November 11] brings Indian summer.”
By the 1830s “Indian summer” had taken on a figurative meaning to describe later life. The poet, John Greenleaf Whittier referred to the later years of love as “the Indian Summer of the heart” in his poem “Memories.” Thomas de Quincey described death as “Indian summer creeping stealthily over his closing days” in 1855 and Oliver Wendell Homes mentioned “an Indian summer of serene widowhood” in his story, “The Guarding Angel,” written in 1867.
Although several theories have been suggested no one really knows where the term originated. The most popular theory is that mild hazy weather would encourage animals to come out and the hazy atmosphere gave hunters an advantage on the prey. This weather that extended the Indians’ hunting season became known as “Indian summer.”
Other people claim it comes from the early Algonquian tribe who believed that the good weather conditions were a gift caused by a warm wind sent from the court of their southwestern god, Cautantowwit.
Another theory is that the name came from the country of India since the term, “Indian summer” reached England in the 19th century during the heyday of the British Empire’s involvement in that region. Author H.E. Ware noted that ships crossing the Indian Ocean heavily loaded their cargo in the calm fall weather. Some ships had an “I.S.” painted on their hull at the maximum load level giving rise to the belief that the name came from the Indian Ocean and the fair weather of the season. However, this theory is highly unlikely since the term was already used in America many years earlier.
Other suggestions are that a spell of warm weather after the first frost was first noted in regions inhabited by Indians, or perhaps because the Indians first described the season to the Europeans. These suggestions are probably not the origin since the same weather patterns were identified by other names in Europe much earlier.
In England as early as 1591 a period of unseasonably warm weather in the fall was called St. Martin’s Summer after St. Martin’s day (November 11). Or, depending on when the warmth arrived, it was sometimes called “Little Summer” or “St. Luke’s Summer” (after St. Luke’s Day, October 18) or “All-Hallown Summer” (October 31).
Other European countries had their own names for this type of weather. The equivalent of Indian Summer is called “Old Wives Summer” or “Old Women's Summer” in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and many Slavic language countries. In Russian and Croatia it is known as “Grandma's Summer” and in Bulgaria, “Gypsy Summer” or “Poorman's summer.”
The bottom line is that it is impossible to discover the origin of a term which was in common usage more than 200 years ago, but universally it is not thought to be in any way a derogatory term and perfectly acceptable in polite society.