Indian Summer

Driving home this afternoon I was wondering where the term “Indian summer” originates. We’ve been having a string of warm days even though all the deciduous trees are at the height of their autumn color. So, like any self-respecting post-modern citizen of the global village, I googled the term when I got home. The Wikipedia article turns out to be quite informative. (Wikipedia can be particularly useful on topics like this because it pools folk knowledge.) Apparently, nobody really knows where the phrase comes from, though we have a first recorded use of 1778 that comes from rural New York. Which is of interest to me because I am typing this blog entry in rural New York. I was initially surprised that some speculate the term comes from South Asia originally, specifically from a line on the hull of British ships that marked the safe draft so as to prevent overloading. Beside the line was written I.S. for, Indian Summer. There were plenty of British seamen in North America in the eighteenth century & it seems likely to me that the phrase got adopted and put to another semantic use. It would have sounded familiar, even with its new meaning of “a late warm spell.” I think words & phrases must get shifted around like that fairly often, putting an old tool to a new use.

The other interesting piece of information I gleaned from the article is that it is too early for me to properly use the term to describe our current weather. According to Wikipedia, it would have to be October, at least, to qualify. There is a sentence that Indian summer occurrs after the first frost, which makes sense. We had a very light frost the other morning, but we usually don’t think we’ve had a real frost until the cold kills the grasses & wildflowers & causes annuals to die back. That hasn’t happened yet. Still, the picture accompanying the article looks like it could have been taken out along the river here. I’ve tended to think of Indian summer as any series of warm days after the leaves have turned. When Carole got home, I asked her what she thought it meant & she said there has to be “a certain sweetness in the air.” Anyway, it is definitely fall — our neighbors the Thomases have harvested all the corn & are selling pumpkins now at their farm stand, along with the last of the year’s tomatoes.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.