Having just heard for the first time that a true Indian summer has to be preceded by a freeze, I did a little googling and found this page, which contains detailed investigations of the phenomenon itself and of the possible origins of its name (which goes back at least to a letter by St. John de Crevecoeur dated “German-flats, 17 Janvier, 1778”). The consensus definition:

It is an abnormally warm and dry weather period, varying in length, that comes in the autumn time of the year, usually in October or November, and only after the first killing frost/freeze. There may be several occurrences of Indian Summer in a fall season or none at all.


  1. My father-in-law told me the same thing a few weeks ago. I figured the difference in our usages (he required the frost; I only needed a cold spell) were due to his being a New Englander and my being from Louisiana. Thanks for the further elucidation.

  2. Googling some some, the Glossary of Meterology compares Indian Summer with Old Wives’ summer, St. Martin’s summer, St. Luke’s summer and All-hallown summer.
    Digging more, Altweigersommer appears to be the term in German, and été des Indiens in Québécois.
    Flipping though a few random dictionaires, I found babie lato (Polish); Schmokdaage, Schmokwedder and Altweiwersummer (Pennsylvania German); бабье лето (Russian); brittsommar and indiansommar (Swedish).
    I asked a Chilean colleague, and he saw veranillo de San Martín in a dictionary, but left a message with a friend because he couldn’t remember the term they used back home. A Brazilian colleague insisted that it is summer year round in Brazil thus no need for such a term.

  3. Huh. Sue and I were just speculating about where the name came from two days ago. Thanks for the link!

  4. I just thought to check the OED, which updated its entry in September 2009:

    Etymology: < Indian adj. + summer n

    The origin of the expression is uncertain. It may echo the use of Indian adj. in compounds such as Indian corn n., Indian bread n., etc. which denote something other than that normally denoted by the simplex, sometimes with derogatory connotations of being substitute or ersatz. Alternatively, the expression may have arisen from the fact that the region in which the meteorological conditions in question were originally noticed was still occupied by the Indians. In its origin it appears to have had nothing to do with the glowing autumnal tints of the foliage, with which it is sometimes associated. The actual time of its occurrence and the character of the weather also vary for different regions. For other early suggestions about the origin of the expression compare:

    1812 J. Freeman Serm. viii. 277–8 (note) Two or three weeks of fair weather, in which the air is perfectly transparent, and the clouds, which float in a sky of the purest azure, are adorned with brilliant colours… This charming season is called the Indian Summer, a name which is derived from the natives, who believe that it is caused by a wind, which comes immediately from the court of their great and benevolent God Cautantowwit, or the south-western God.
    1824 J. Doddridge Notes Virginia & Pennsylv. 266 The smokey time commenced and lasted for a considerable number of days. This was the Indian summer, because it afforded the Indians another opportunity of visiting the settlements with their destructive warfare.

  5. The OED does have the quote from Crèvecœur, but dated “a1813”. That means they couldn’t verify the date of the manuscript, all they can do is put it before the author’s death. What was the problem? A couple of searches in Hathitrust give the answer: the quote is from an essay called “A Snow Storm as It Affects the American Farmer”, which was not included in Crèvecœur’s famous Letters from an American Farmer, but did appear in the edition that he rewrote in French and published in 1787; the English version of this essay was not published until 1925, in a collection of his previously unpublished works. The manuscript in English was apparently undated, and the OED must have decided they couldn’t tell whether it was really written before the French version or after it.

    The quote in French, here:

    Quelquefois après cette pluie , il arrive un intervalle de calme & de chaleur, appelé l’Eté Sauvage ; ce qui l’indique, c’eſt la tranquillité de l’atmoſphère , & une apparence générale de fumée.

    I would tend to think that the French quote should be included as evidence of dating, since obviously Crèvecœur was just translating a term he’d learned from his American neighbors. Of course, this strict dating policy creates much, much more confusion with Shakespeare.

  6. Good points; thanks for doing the research!

  7. David Marjanović says

    Back in 2003…


    Altweibersommer. Maybe the tiny spiders that float through the air on long silk threads are compared to old wives’ hair, or something. Just means warm & sunny period in the fall – does not occur after a frost; frost practically never happens before late November, often later still.

  8. From 1803: “…une série de beaux jours, appelés l’été sauvage (Indian-summer): c’est que nous appelons en France l’été de la Saint-Martin; […]”

    Later on the same page we learn about the very exciting “hanguign-month (mois de pendaison)”.

  9. David L. Gold says

    Eastern Yidish has at least:

    שפּעטזומער (shpetzumer), literally ‘late summer’

    חשװן-זומער (khezhvn-zumer), literally ‘Cheshvan summer’ (referring to the second month of the Jewish civil year and the eighth of the Jewish religious year)

    װײַבערשער זומער (vaybersher zumer), literally ‘wives’ summer’ (English wives has its older sense here, as in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”)

    אַלטװײַבער-זומער (altvayber-zumer), literally ‘old wives’ summer’ (a translation of New High German Altweibersommer).

  10. Spätsommer also exists in German. It means what is says on the tin (“late summer”).

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Frühherbst exists in German as well, but there is some cognitive dissonance involved:

    # Frühherbst: ca. Ende August/Anfang September bis Mitte September. Die Zeigerpflanze für den Frühherbst ist die Herbstzeitlose, die den „Altweibersommer“ einleitet. #

  12. David Marjanović says

    In Vienna, summer lasted until October 5th this year. Tempora et mores et caetera.

  13. Trond Engen says

    As I said to my neighbour when was trimming the hedge and cleaning the terrace this August, it’s never too late for a good early spring.

Speak Your Mind