Q&A: Why is it called an “Indian summer”?

Why is it called an Indian summer?
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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're having lazy, hazy days of summer…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about the weather?

A: Wow, have we really run out of things to discuss?

Q: No, it’s a specific question. The other day, a friend of mine was lamenting on all the rain and hoped that we might get an “Indian summer” this year.

A: Okay.

Q: Can you explain what this means and well, why “Indian”? 

A: Let’s start with the definition. The Macquarie Dictionary defines “Indian summer” as a period of summer weather occurring after the proper summer season. Here in Australia, that would typically be the autumn months – March to May or September to November in the Northern Hemisphere.

Q: Sure, that makes sense. But WHY Indian??

A: Why do YOU think?

Q: Maybe it has to do with how curries make you sweat? Or how it’s always quite warm in India? Or something to do with the monsoon season? Or related to the British Raj of the 19th century?

A: All fair guesses. But all wrong.

Q: Ah, okay.

A: Actually, you might be surprised to learn that you’re on the wrong continent.

Q: Oh really? My grandad always had trouble with his continents. Actually, that may have been his continence. Never mind.

A: So, the “Indian” in question doesn’t actually come from the country of India, but from the North American Indians.

Q: Oh! Actually, before we go on, why ARE they both called Indians?

A: It started simply enough – with “Indian” used to describe peoples from India or surrounding parts of Asia since around the 1300s.

Q: That makes sense.

A: But then along came the Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the 1500s, arriving in North America and mistakenly thinking they’d arrived at the eastern edge of Asia. 

Q: Wow, MORE trouble with continents! Nice to know grandad isn’t alone.

A: Uh huh. Anyway, they named the indigenous peoples “Indian”, thinking they had found a new path to Asia – then commonly known then as “the Indies”.

Q: So is this also why the islands in the Caribbean are called the West Indies?

A: Yep. Once Christopher Columbus realised he hadn’t reached “the Indies” of Asia, he retained the term “West Indies” to mark its distinction from the “East Indies” which actually WERE in Asia, and included modern day Indonesia and the Philippines.

Q: So the east and west in this case are based on sailing from Europe”?

A: Correct! By the way, the term “Indian” was for a short time synonymous with “indigenous” – with explorers originally calling the native peoples of Philippines, Australia and New Zealand “Indians” during the early 1800s.

Q: How confusing it must have been for all these people to have their long-standing homes “discovered” for the first time!

A: True. By the way, the term “Red Indian” would eventually be used to distinguish North American Indians from those who inhabited India. The term didn’t turn up until the 1800s – chosen to reflect the bronzed skin colouring of these people, or perhaps the red war paint they applied to their faces.

Q: Seems a tad racist. 

A: The terms “Red Indian” and “Redskin” have been the subject of protests by native Americans since the 1960s, and are now considered racial slurs. It certainly took a while though, with the Washington DC football team “Redskins” only just getting a new name in 2022.

Q: Okay, so we’ve established that “Indian summer” is named after the North American Indians. But how did this come about?

A: The term is first recorded in use from 1774, in inland regions of the USA and Canada where Indian tribes lived in large numbers. This particular area would commonly see a weather quirk resulting in a spell of warm, dry, hazy weather after the first frost – often extending all the way until December. 

Q: Why was it hazy?

A: The haziness may have been from the prairie fires that tribes would set at this time of year, following harvest. Anyway, this somewhat natural weather phenomenon created by certain polar high pressure factors was instead attributed to the native people, in name at least.

Q: Yeah, I’m pretty sure they didn’t actually control the weather!

A: Well don’t forget that they do a pretty mean “rain dance”.

Q: Groan.

A: By the way, the term “Indian summer” may have started in a specific geographic location, but now – given its use in Australia and many other places – it’s more about the timing rather than the place. Curiously, there is another meaning for “Indian summer” that relates to the “autumn years” of one’s life or career – but dictionaries seem to disagree on it.

Q: Explain?

A: Well, the Macquarie Dictionary lists its second meaning as “a peaceful and quiet old age” – which is odd as this seems akin to having autumn weather in autumn. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster defines it as “a happy or flourishing period occurring toward the end of something” which would more closely match the original weather meaning. An example of the latter might be, “The 2010s were something of an Indian summer to Betty White’s long career”.

Q: Yeah I think I prefer that one. Nawww, Betty White. What a legend.

A: Who knew a discussion about the weather could be so interesting!

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