Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Mid-Week Musings

My musings meander today because their scope is so broad. My thoughts regarding political correctness began simply enough. I was working on an assignment that explored the origins of Indian pudding. As I read through my notes, I stopped when I came to the expression Indian summer. Back in the day, we were taught that Indian summer referred to a warm spell that followed the first frost of autumn. I never for a moment considered it might be offensive to Native Americans, and thought it was a lovely way to describe the final flush of summer. Then I started to think. That's always a mistake and it never fails to get me into trouble. I live in a liberal community where political correctness is taken seriously. Sometimes I, by extension, take it too seriously. I had no problem with the expression Indian pudding. It was a recognized dessert that's been served in American homes for years, but for some reason the expression Indian summer made me uneasy. As it happened, I met with some local writers that day and shared my hesitation with them. Out came the iPads and before you know it, my research became a group project.

As it turns out, my definition of Indian summer was only half right. I correctly identified the weather conditions necessary for its occurrence, but I missed its date component. Seems a true Indian summer occurs only when a late warm spell follows a frost that occurs between 1st through the 20th of November. Similar weather conditions occur throughout the world but they are given other unique names. It's known as "gypsy" or "poor man's summer" in Bulgaria. In the mountainous regions of Europe it is called the "old women's summer," and in Slavic countries it is known as "women summer." No explanation was given for these name variants, but I'd love to hear the story behind "old woman's summer." I, after all, have a vested interest.

Our initial research didn't solve the issue of political correctness, though it gave us clues that helped resolve the issue. The first reference to Indian summer dated from 1778. It described, but did not explain, the phenomenon. According to the Farmer's Almanac, the most likely explanation can be traced to settlers in New England who welcomed cold wintry weather because they could leave their stockades unarmed. They feared warmer weather would invite attack, and they coined the expression "Indian summer" to describe the weather conditions that might make them more vulnerable. Save for this supposition, we found no evidence that the expression was meant to defame Native Americans. So, unlike the expression "Indian giver," "Indian summer" is politically correct to almost everyone. Despite that, the women in my group thought the expression should be avoided whenever possible, so I now have to find another way to poetically describe a spell of warm weather following a frost in November.

This exercise did, however, point out that we might be on the verge of becoming too politically correct. We all know how words can become racist, but I, for one, am not sure how a word can become derogatory or politically incorrect. I do know that once that happens, a new word will be found to replace it. Ironically, in time there is a chance that the new descriptor will also become politically incorrect as it did in the progression of crippled to handicapped to disabled. The word "lame" describes a condition as well as a behavior. Should it really be considered politically incorrect? While it might be fun, I won't go near expressions like Polish sausage or Greek yogurt. I would, however, like the following offensive expression addressed. I want you to know that I am not old. I am not a senior citizen. I am chronologically advantaged. Got it? If you're at all interested in other expressions that are politically incorrect and need revision, I'd like to point you to the tongue-in-cheek list you'll find, here . It will either outrage you or make you smile. I'm betting it will make you smile.


David said...

Mary, We live in a community of mostly retirees from the north central and eastern states and our area is the opposite of your liberal community. I consider myself a moderate and it's hard to find anyone as 'liberal' as I am! In any case, I believe that political correctness has gone beyond reasonableness... People read into any phrase or quote to find something that they disagree with and then they fuss about it...but I guess that with social media and 'modern' society's love of sound it's not going to get any better. Have a great day and enjoy a wonderful Indian Summer! Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Sue/the view from great island said...

This is so interesting Mary, because I LOVE Indian pudding, and I have wanted to post about it for a long time, but always felt confused about how to deal with the name!

Anonymous said...

I'm from the UK and the curse of political correctness has spread from your shores to ours and I can't help thinking we need a dose of healthy common sense to find a balance.


Nickie Jim said...

I grew up in Western New York State, originally occupied by the Iroquois Confederacy, now known as the Six Nations. (It's the oldest living participatory democracy on earth.) Some of my schoolmates were members of the Tuscaroras. Before politically-correct terms became paramount, the words "Indian Summer" were widely accepted as you state in your musings. I don't recall anyone griping about this phrase, because they referred to a particular time of year in New York that was loved -- a taste of warmth before the snows set in. Let it be, is my take on it. Indian Summer is one of those that's always been, well, Indian Summer. How's that?

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