A new name for Indian summer?

Many of us in the meteorological community have used the term Indian summer for decades. It’s been around for more than a century. In a world where the naming of things is evolving to reflect a more modern approach, the term Indian summer may be a relic.

Autumn color in Deephaven. Paul Huttner | MPR News

Genesis of Indian summer

How did we get here?

The origination of the term Indian Summer first appears over two-hundred years ago. The British website www.phrases.org.uk explains the genesis of Indian Summer this way.

Indian summer is first recorded in Letters From an American Farmer, a 1778 work by the French-American soldier turned farmer J. H. St. John de Crèvecoeur (a.k.a. Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur): There are many references to the term in American literature in the following hundred years or so.

Why Indian? Well, no one knows but, as is commonplace when no one knows, many people have guessed. Here are a few of the more commonly repeated guesses:

  • When European settlers first came across the phenomenon in America it became known as the Indian’s Summer.
  • The haziness of the Indian Summer weather was caused by prairie fires deliberately set by Native American tribes.
  • It was the period when First Nations/Native American peoples harvested their crops.
  • The phenomenon was more common in what were then North American Indian territories.
Fiery reds. Paul Huttner | MPR News

Defining Indian summer

What meteorological conditions constitute Indian summer? Three key elements to remember here.

  • It’s a period of abnormally warm weather.
  • It occurs in mid to late autumn.
  • It occurs after the first frost.

Here’s the American Meteorological Society’s definition from the AMS Glossary of Meteorology.

Indian summer

A period, in mid- or late autumn, of abnormally warm weather, generally clear skies, sunny but hazy days, and cool nights.

In New England, at least one killing frost and preferably a substantial period of normally cool weather must precede this warm spell in order for it to be considered a true “Indian summer.” It does not occur every year, and in some years there may be two or three Indian summers.

The term is most often heard in the northeastern United States, but its usage extends throughout English- speaking countries. It dates back at least to 1778, but its origin is not certain; the most probable suggestions relate it to the way that the American Indians availed themselves of this extra opportunity to increase their winter stores.

The comparable period in Europe is termed the Old Wives’ summer, and, poetically, may be referred to as halcyon days. In England, dependent upon dates of occurrence, such a period may be called St. Martin’s summer, St. Luke’s summer, and formerly All-hallown summer.

The BBC adds this characteristically British perspective.

Shakespeare also used the expression “All Halloween Summer” in Henry IV part I for a period of warm sunshine as October gives way to November. A more generic but now (sadly) politically incorrect idiom is “Old Wives’ Summer”.

All these expressions may still be heard in various parts of Britain, but chiefly in remote rural areas. Though they are naturally much less common than they were 60 or 70 years ago.

The idea there are particular times of the autumn in Britain when these warm spells might recur is a fanciful one. Detailed statistical analyses do not suggest that any one week is more favoured than any other, and in a few years autumn brings relentlessly disturbed weather with a progressive drop in temperature, and there is nothing remotely Indian summer-like at all.

The origin of all these sayings has, perhaps, more to do with keeping people’s spirits up during the headlong rush into winter.

No turn around beyond? Paul Huttner | MPR News

A new name?

Over the past few years I’ve had feedback from listeners about the use of the term Indian summer. Of course meteorologists who have used that term to describe the seasonal singularity intend no disrespect. But it does seem that we as a profession could come up with a more respectful name that is still descriptive of the phenomenon we call Indian summer.

Second summer? Last chance summer?

The Weather Lab suggestion box is open.

  • Dave

    Great article Paul.

    I agree with renaming it. Halloween Summer? I like it.

  • Bonni Boran

    Vibrant Summer, Shimmering Summer or Second Summer

    • Bob H.

      Second Summer is cool. Kind of like Second Breakfast in Lord of the Rings.

  • C.M. Jones

    If one is concerned chiefly with superficial titles, I suppose Resurgent Summer would be a more politically correct construction, albeit lacking in character and overflowing with pretention. At the same time, however, there’s nothing inherently derogatory about the term Indian Summer. I am well versed in the debate that explores the most graceful means of alluding to the indigenous tribes of our nation, but we must practice caution in demolishing the foundations of our language. If we probe the English idiom for every phoneme that may be deemed even marginally offensive, we’ll be left with a ten-word vocabulary that erodes the controversial splendor of our elaborate linguistic heritage. Please be assured that I have no desire to defame Native Americans in any fashion. I wish merely to be rational in our management of cultural sensitivity, which all too often manifests itself in the form of childish hyperbole.

    Permit me to exemplify: Should we shelve the Minnesota Vikings because their name connotes bands of bloodthirsty maniacs who ravaged Europe for several hundred years? I certainly hope no one is on board with that amendment. The Minnesota Tax Collectors lacks potency as a viable alternative, though it may be a more accurate representation of our state’s insatiable lust for revenue.

    Taking pause to ponder the matter further, the only thing I find offensive about “Indian Summer” is the meteorological condition it conveys. I loathe bouts of warmth in autumn. Were I able to control the elements, we’d have highs in the twenties at present, and temperatures would only plummet from here on out. Thus, rather than dwell upon the sociological symbolism of verbiage, let’s eradicate the real problem that plagues us: temps in the sixties in mid-October. Bring on a respectable Arctic blast! We still live in Minnesota, do we not? Or will we ban that name too, given that we confiscated the land from the very people we seek to honor by calling our home a place of “sky-tinted water”? Excessive political correctness is a mind-forged manacle that enslaves rather than liberates.

    • Bob H.

      Obsessing over political correctness is a mind-forged manacle that enslaves rather than liberates.

    • TJ R

      Trying to respect people is not politically correct, it is simply kind and thoughtful. When it is about the speaker it is political correctness. When it a genuine desire to honor others, it is respect. And, why not correct wrongs when we can? We aren’t “erasing history” believe me, rather we are making it more complete.

  • Mike Davis

    I think Indian Summer denotes native wisdom in grasping and naming the final opportunity to gather supplies for the oncoming winter – digging up root crops before the ground freezes for example, and just generally it is easier to do stuff for longer when it’s not so cold out and the days are longer. I take it as another valuable lesson we should learn from the those who were already here for thousands of years when the Europeans arrived.

    • C.M. Jones

      A perfectly valid position. One can easily argue that “Indian Summer” is a pledge to the tribes from whom we adopted survival skills in an unknown climate. Almost every utterance we can produce is prone to subjective interpretation. “Table” can be a highly offensive term to those who prefer to stand while dining. And amid a discussion during my collegiate years, a female friend expressed her longing to remove “woman” from our lexicon, as it contains the word “man,” a masculine construct that stung her to the core, for she perceived it as a tool of patriarchal oppression. Such a combative mentality is beyond appeasement, and catering to it is a woeful squandering of energy. Of the trillions of problems that beset us as a nation — and, more broadly speaking, as a species — name-games should be demoted to the bottom of the list.

  • Chris C

    Can we please stop erasing our history including the warts and wrongs. Something about if we don’t learn our history we’re doomed to repeat it. The masses isn’t going to learn and remember from schooling, having monuments and names with an honest accounting nearby will always keep it front and center. Calling it Indian Summer gives us another reminder of the history between ‘Columbus’ and today and what those people went through. Yes, I know Columbus didn’t exactly do what he’s ‘credited’ for. Keep it up and pretty soon all symbols of Indians removed from our lexicon results in after a generation or so their plight will have been erased too.

    • MPR Weather

      Excellent discussion and thoughts by all. I like the notion that Indian Summer can be thought of as an honoring of those who thrived in this harsh climate long before many of our ancestors arrived. I also love the native american moon names. Very descriptive and beautiful.

  • Jeff C.

    Why does it need a name? How about calling it what it is – unexpectedly warm temperatures? A newspaper just posted an article with this sentence: “This weekend in Lincoln is set to be a sizzler in more ways than one as the county enjoys an Indian summer.” Would it not be clearer to instead say, “This weekend in Lincoln is set to be a sizzler in more ways than one as the county enjoys unexpectedly warm temperatures.”?

  • Joshua

    Europeans took so much away from earliest settlers of the western hemisphere. I wonder if renaming Indian summer would be just another takeaway. Every time I hear “Indian” referring to the first peoples, it’s a reminder that Columbus was an ignoramus who thought the world was half as big as the Greeks calculated it to be. If it’s an insult to anybody, it’s an insult to the European second comers.

  • deb simon

    This seems like a good question to ask the Native People.