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Indian Summer

The long good riddance.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the phrase “Indian summer” come from? — Nancy Bernacet.

Good question, and an appropriate one given the season. “Indian summer” is, of course, the brief period of warm, dry weather often occurring in late autumn. Indian summer is often regarded as a temporary respite from the growing signs of winter, a last chance to enjoy outdoor activities and perhaps take a drive to enjoy the colorful fall foliage. Around here, it is also, unfortunately, regarded as the grand finale of the lawn mowing season, and participation seems to be mandatory. Since I was brought up to regard lawn mowing after Labor Day as barbaric, I just draw the curtains every year and hope for an early snow to render my indolence moot.

As I noted when I answered this question about eight years ago, there are several theories about the origin of “Indian summer,” but none considered the final word. The first occurrence of the phrase in print found so far is from a book written in 1778 by a French-American farmer, James Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, describing late autumn in New York’s Hudson Valley: “… [the first snow] is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer.”

Several theories focus on that reference to smoke (which also occurs in other citations from the 18th and 19th centuries) explaining “Indian summer” as being the time when Indians were in the habit of setting fires to drive game out of hiding as part of one last big hunt before the arrival of the snow. Another theory ties the smoke to fires set by the Indians to clear fields for the next spring’s planting. It’s also said that Indians took advantage of that period of mild weather to move to their winter hunting grounds.

Some other explanations of the phrase are rooted in the less than idyllic relationship between European settlers and the Indians. One citation from 1824 explains that “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.” The “Indian” in “Indian summer” may also be a derogatory use of “Indian” to mean “false or unreliable,” as found in the slur “Indian giver.”

Perhaps it’s better just to go with the explanation offered by the Indians themselves, recounted by a Boston clergyman in 1812: “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.”


I’ll sneeze when I’m dead.

Dear Word Detective: I am an exchange student, living in the US right now. I’m from Germany, and when I felt sick today, my host brother and I wondered whether there is a connection between “German” and “germs.” I know that the name “Germany” and all its other forms are very old and go back to Latin “Germania” or something. But does “germ” come from there? Are all German people “germian”? — Katharina Holst.

If by “germian” you mean “germy” in the sense of “carrying germs” or “infested with dangerous microbial organisms,” good heavens, no. You must be thinking of spinach. From what I’ve heard, Germany is one of the cleanest countries on earth, and most of the people of German descent I’ve known have been fastidiously neat and clean. Then again, I’m not sure that the current American craze for turning our homes (and hands) into germ-free zones with antimicrobial agents is such a good idea. The germs that eventually evolve to survive that stuff are going to be very hardy and in a very bad mood. I’d rather have the sniffles right now than face billions of tiny little ticked-off Rottweilers in a few years.

The root of “German” and “Germany” is the Latin “Germanus,” which was first (as far as we know) used in print by Julius Caesar for the peoples of central and northern Europe in his accounts of his conquests in the area. The root of “Germanus” is unknown, but it does not appear to have come from any Germanic language. One theory suggests that the word “German” was actually derived from a word in one of the languages of the neighboring Gauls, perhaps related to either the Old Irish “gair” (“neighbor”) or “gairim” (“to shout”).

The root of “germ,” on the other hand, is a different Latin word, “germen,” meaning the sprout or bud of a plant, which also gave us “germinate.” “Germ” first appeared in English in the 17th century with the sense of “sprout” or “seed.” A related Latin root, “germanus” (“akin” or “genuine”) gave us the modern English “germane,” in which the sense of “closely connected” was developed into its current meaning of “relevant.” Interestingly, the original form of “germane” in English was “german” (small “g”) which survives only in the fairly obscure forms “brother-german” and “sister-german,” meaning “full sibling.”

In any case, “germs” were good and positive things in English (a sense still found in “a germ of an idea” and “wheat germ”) until the 19th century, when the “germ theory of disease” took hold, leading to germicides, antibiotics and, recently, mass fear of shopping-cart handles.

Flesh/flush out.

Meat and bleat.

Dear Word Detective: I work in a PR agency where we have to come up with a lot of new ideas for our clients to keep paying us money. So we have a lot of brainstorms. And out of the brainstorms come a lot of ideas that we all need to go back to our desks and “flush out.” I have been working with the same person for ten years and we always argue about this, because I tell her we need to “flesh out” the ideas, not “flush them out.” Perhaps in the brainstorm, I can grant her, we are “flushing out” the ideas from deep within out brains (like flushing out a drain or a flock of geese from the woods), but the subsequent beefing up of these bare-bones ideas should be referred to as “fleshing them out.” Who is right? — Brad Kuerbis.

Whoa. You folks have been arguing about this for ten years? Sounds like you need to hire yourselves to brainstorm a new bone of contention. Your conciliatory attempt to parse “flush out” as akin to running a Roto-Rooter on one’s noggin is laudable, although it does imply that the deepest levels of our brains are clogged with marketing strategies. But the truth is simply that you are right and she is wrong.

The meaning of “to flush” when it first appeared as a verb in English around 1300 was “to fly up suddenly,” as a covey of quail will upon being startled in a field by hunters and their dogs. The transitive form of the verb, meaning “to drive into the open,” appeared around 1450, and the “sudden movement of liquid” sense appeared in the 16th century. “Flush” is thought to be echoic, imitating the sound of sudden flight, and both the “force out” and “water” senses may also be related to the word “flash.”

“Flesh” is, of course, what menus call “meat,” and the first use of “flesh” as a verb in the 16th century was to mean “reward a hawk or hound with part of the game killed as encouragement.” A wide range of meanings subsequently developed, including, in the 17th century, “to clothe a skeleton with flesh.” As a hobby this was apparently a non-starter, as most uses have been figurative with the sense of “to fill out, to make a rudimentary framework more substantial” (much as you use “beef up” in your question, “beef” having served as a synonym for both “strength” and “substance” since the 19th century). The process you describe of building substance on the foundation of an inspired idea thus clearly calls for “flesh out.”