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A summer by any other name?

Rosie Right

The online chat group Copyediting-L has been discussing the use of the term Indian Summer. Where did it come from? Is it insulting to Native Americans and should one use it? The opinions have been complicated because Indian Summer - that last touch of summer that often comes in the midst of fall - is always welcomed and is a pleasant delay of the cold days we know will soon be coming.

Among the copy editors who posted comments were at least two Native Americans, the first of whom said that "every coined phrase that includes the word Indian stops me and tends to raise old hackles… I would say that Indian summer has a certain nostalgic and benevolent connotation that takes away some of the onus, but in general, it still rankles to hear it among all the similar derogatory terms coined in English within the past five hundred years, such as "Indian giver." The second member of the chat group agreed with him and also took umbrage at American Indian wives being called squaws and even at the name of the Washington Redskins.

At first Rosie thought perhaps these people were being a bit too sensitive (about Indian Summer), but then Rosie looked up the term in H.L.Mencken's American Language, Supplement I. Mencken agrees with the Copyediting correspondent, quoting Dr. Harry Morgan Ayres who in 1942 wrote:

"In Europe, where the phenomenon is less striking than with us, it had long been known as St. Martin's Summer. …To Englishmen, unlike other Europeans, the name St. Martin's suggested something false, a sham or imitation, for the dealers of cheap jewelry were gathered in the parish of St. Martin-de-Grand in London. …

"The first of our American forefathers, then whoever he or quite possibly she was. that may have said,` 'Tis but an Indian kind of Summer after all, as false and fickle as they,' was only following the early habit among them of characterizing by the term Indian whatever in the New World looked something like the real thing was but not. Indian-corn is not wheat. An Indian-barn is a hole in the ground. There were Indian-beans, Indian -cucumbers, Indian-hemp, Indian paintbrushes…"

In this case, when we know the origin of the term,we can understand Native Americans disliking it.

Excessive Language:
From an Oct. 19 New York Times article about the debate commentary by Caryn James: "Gloria Borger chimed in with the night's most unfortunate, unctuous metaphor. 'This has to marinate,' she said, as if waiting for the Gore and Bush kabobs to be ready for the grill."

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