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“Indian summer” and other curious idioms

Part 1: Indian summer

The Internet is full of information about the origin of the phrase Indian summer. Everything said there about this idiom, its use, the puzzling reference to Indian, as well as about a desired replacement of Indian by a word devoid of ethnic connotations and about the synonyms for the phrase in the languages of the world, is correct. Obviously, the idiom emerged in the United States, and obviously, Indian has something to do with the rites or customs of the indigenous population, even though the phrase was coined by English speakers, rather than translated from some Native American language.

All sources mention the study of the idiom by Albert Matthews, an outstanding researcher of American English (among many other things). The honor accorded Matthews is fully justified, because his conclusions still stand. Indian summer surfaced in print in 1790, which means that it was known some time earlier. The reference has always been to a spell of good weather in November, and the suggestion that the short warm period witnessed some activities peculiar to the customs or habits of the native population is unobjectionable. It only appeared hard to guess what those activities consisted of: hunting, setting fires, or even attacking white settlements.

In the periodical Notes and Queries for September 2017, pp. 503-505, Dr. Matthew R. Halley of Drexel University, Philadelphia, published a clipping from an early American newspaper (Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser), which contains a new etymology of the idiom. The text is a letter to the editor, almost certainly by Reuben Haines III (1786-1831). Below, I’ll reproduce the gist of his etymology (see p. 505). There used to be, we read, an annual fair in Philadelphia for three days, beginning on the last Wednesday in November. The fairs were discontinued soon after 1788 (just when the phrase Indian summer turned up!). As long as they existed, they were regularly attended by the Native population. People brought there all kinds of articles to exchange for what they could find at the fair. “In those days, as ever since about this season, there generally happened a few very pleasant days: these pleasant days frequently coming at the time the Indians came to the fair, gave the idea that they brought the summer with them. … there is no specific time for the Indian summer; consequently, when a few pleasant days occur the term is applied to them.”

Like Dr. Halley, I believe that this simple explanation solves the riddle. The surprising thing is that the phrase Indian summer gained almost immediate popularity in the rest of the English-speaking world. I don’t know how many people still read John Galsworthy, but his interlude “Indian Summer of a Forsyte” (1918) is one of the best tales he wrote.

Part 2: Mysterious idioms

Collecting the data for the book Take My Word for It: A Dictionary of English Idioms took me about ten years, and an additional reward for this labor is a huge filing cabinet full of xeroxed pages from all kinds of periodicals for about three centuries—indeed, many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. However, my goal was not to cite and illustrate those quaint and curious phrases (since the seventeen-hundreds, many full dictionaries of English idioms have been written by antiquarians, amateurs, and professional linguists) but to say something fairly convincing about their origin. In many cases, a correspondent to The British Mercury or Long Ago, to mention two little-remembered titles, would ask questions that were never answered. As a general rule, I did not include such idioms in my book. But it seems a pity to let all of them die in my office. Once I retire, they will probably be recycled. That is why I am going to publish some of the discarded phrases in the blog “The Oxford Etymologist.” What if someone has heard them or has an idea about their origin? My plan is to add a few phrases to at least some future posts. Today’s batch comes from Notes and Queries.

The authentic Matty Murray? CC0 via rawpixel.

(1856) “I have heard a servant-girl say the other day, speaking of the growth of an infant, ‘Aye, he is growing like Matty Murray’s money.’ Upon my inquiring the source of the adage, she was unable to give me any further information on the subject, beyond ‘It’s only a saying we have’.” Today, the idiom sounds especially funny because of the existence of the Canadian professional ice hockey goaltender Matt Murray. For some reason, the questioner assumed that the proverbial Matty was a woman of Sottish descent. Be that as it may, Matty Murray must have hailed from Scotland, and the only obvious thing about the phrase is the alliteration, though there may have been a local tale about Matty’s ever-increasing riches. As far as I can judge, the heroes of such tales are most often apocryphal, but perhaps someone knows the source of the idiom. If so, don’t hide your light under a bushel.

The next idiom I did include in my book, charmed by the beauty of it, but it still would be good to understand how it came about. (1879) “‘There she lies fast asleep with her hands full of pancakes’. I heard this said of a child the other day in Berkshire [a county south of Oxfordshire]. Can any of your readers supply an explanation why sound sleep should be associated with pancakes?” No one could.

But where are the pancakes? Pickpik. CC0.

(1879) “‘To hang Jos’. This is an expression I hear occasionally in North Staffordshire [central England]. It means ‘to encroach on provisions reserved for some particular occasions’. I believe it is also used in other districts. I am unable to discover its origin.” Joz, we can assume, means “Joseph.” Is there an obscure reference to Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharoah’s dream about seven fat and seven scrawny cows?

Not a dairy farm. Mother shelters goslings, CC2.0. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The last piece for today is not unknown, but the reference remains puzzling. (1929) “In an American ‘Wild West’ Magazine I came across the following dialogue: ‘Nigh ten years they have been thumbing their noses at us, an’ here you two shoot them all in ten minutes’. ‘Goose milk, Sheriff, not so quick as that’. If this is a Untied States slang phrase, what is its meaning?” I know the phrase, because decades ago, I found it in a dialog between Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Tom says: “My plan is as mild as goose milk.” Actually, his plan for setting Jim free is incredibly complex and silly, but apparently, he means that everything will go swimmingly and that the stratagem is simplicity itself. Mild alliterates with milk, and this is the only thing that is clear. Mark Twain’s use of dialect in the novel, published in 1885, leaves nothing to be desired (the subject has been studied more than once). I assume that goose milk is a southernism (Missouri?). The phrase did not make its way into the great Dictionary of American Regional English. Probably no one uses it now, though people understood it as late as 1929. In the magazine story, goose milk seems to mean something like “don’t jump to conclusions.” Perhaps Tom’s words also imply some negative sense, because he is objecting to Tom? After all, milch geese do not exist, and whatever milk may be expected from them will certainly be “mild.” Today, the phrase is obscure. The presentation, as they say at conferences, is now open for discussion.

Feature image: Indian Summer Scenery on Cayoosh Creek by Roger Sylvia. Panoramia Web Archive. CC3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Matthew Murray (1767-1826), also known as Matt, was a successful and well-known engineer and inventor, in Yorkshire, maker of an early steam locomotive and an improved textile process. At death his estate was worth 8000 pounds. A possible candidate for the saying.

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