Etymology Usage

Indian summer

Q: Why isn’t the word “summer” capitalized in “Indian summer.” My grammar book says a proper noun “names a particular person, place, or thing.” Isn’t Indian summer a particular time of year? Thanks for your help!

A: The names of seasons (spring, summer, fall, winter) are not considered proper nouns. This is a subject we’ve written about before on our blog.

But “Indian” is capitalized because it is a proper noun, so the phrase is properly written “Indian summer.”

We thought you might like to know more about this expression, which originated in late 18th-century America, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines “Indian summer” as “a period of unusually calm dry warm weather, often accompanied by a hazy atmosphere, occurring in late autumn in the northern United States and Canada; a similar period of unseasonably warm autumnal weather elsewhere.”

The phrase was first recorded in writing in the military journal of Ebenezer Denny, an officer in the Revolutionary and Indian Wars.

In an entry written near Presqu’ Isle, Maine, and dated Oct. 13, 1794, Major Denny wrote: “Pleasant weather. The Indian summer here. Frosty nights.”

From Denny’s journal entry, we can assume the phrase was already in use before he recorded it.

Why was this kind of fall called “Indian summer”? The OED says that “the origin of the expression is uncertain,” but adds that “it appears to have had nothing to do with the glowing autumnal tints of the foliage, with which it is sometimes associated.”

The dictionary speculates, however, that the term “Indian” may have been used here in the disparaging sense of suggesting something “substitute or ersatz.”

So, “an “Indian summer” might have implied a pretend summer. In similar phrases, the OED says, the adjective “Indian” was used in those days to mean “something other than that normally denoted.”

The phrase “Indian corn,” for example, is an example of this “substitute or ersatz” notion at work, as we’ve discussed before on the blog.

To the early English settlers, the term “corn” meant grain in general: wheat, rye, barley, oats, and so on. They used the phrases “Indian corn” and “Indian grain” to mean maize, because to them it was substitute grain or the Indians’ version of grain.

Consequently, in phrases like “Indian bread,” “Indian cakes,” “Indian flour,” and “Indian pudding,” the adjective meant that the dish was made of ground maize (which we now call cornmeal) instead of flour.

Something to keep in mind if, like us, you use cornbread stuffing in your Thanksgiving turkey.

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