This week, West Michigan experienced blissfully gorgeous weather - warm, sunny, dry – a magical “Indian Summer.” Wait- push the pause button. I grew up hearing the expression “Indian Summer” used to identify the brief, warm weather following a killing frost in the fall. But what does it really mean? Where does it come from? “Indian Summer” sounds like a potentially sketchy phrase for these woke times.
At the urging of my horse trainer, I checked out its origins. According to that convenient and randomly questionable source, Wikipedia: “…the earliest known reference to Indian summer in its current sense occurs in an essay written in the United States circa 1778 by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur … Although the exact origins of the term are uncertain, it was perhaps so-called because it was first noted in regions inhabited by American Indians, or because the Indians first described it to Europeans, or it had been based on the warm and hazy conditions in autumn when American Indians hunted.…. a great depth of Native American folklore is attributed to describing this phenomenon.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_summer). In other words, the origin is ambiguous.
As a child I heard that the expression "Indian Summer" evolved from the idea of “Indian Giver” – someone who gives a gift, then wants it back, or who expects something of equal value in return. So an “Indian Summer” is a ‘fake out,’ a betrayal, a deceptive summer. Definitely racist. My husband, originally from Norfolk, VA, heard it this way: The Pilgrims (Mayflower, Thanksgiving, that bunch) were worried about their food supplies after the first hard frost. The Native Pawtuxet people said, “no worries – there’s going to be a spell of warm, dry weather – you can still harvest your crops and go hunting.” And they were right. Happy Thanksgiving! Conclusion: “Indian Summer” is still sketchy.
Other common expressions have similar issues: “Paddy Wagon” used the short version of the Irish name “Patrick” to describe a police vehicle either because many police were historically Irish or because so many drunken Irishmen ended up in the back – either way, it’s assumptive and derogatory. “Peanut Gallery” has a complicated history. Originating in the late 19th century, the phrase referred to the cheap seats in a Vaudeville theater where the Blacks and poor people sat, presumably eating cheap peanuts, which were also used to pelt performers they didn’t like. So “Peanut Gallery” is racist and classist – two salty insults for one tasty expression!
Language carries within it the story of the culture that speaks it, with the cultural norms of historical periods encased in the language of that time. Consequently, quaint historical expressions may not be so charming once their origins are understood in the light of contemporary norms. Using them needs to be thoughtfully considered, because racism, sexism and/or classism may be unintentionally, yet implicitly, perpetuated through their use.
A little research can alleviate a lot of pain. The poetic Gaels coined my favorite alternative for “Indian Summer”:
“Little Summer of the Geese”