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Word of the Week: Altweibersommer

Altweibersommer is the German expression for what Americans refer to as “Indian Summer”, those exceptionally balmy, warm days in September and October that feel almost like summertime just before the cooler days of late fall and winter set in.

At this time of year, areas of high pressure and dry air makes for great views and perfect days to spent outdoors enjoying nature. It is the reason that, over time, the starting date of Munich’s famous Oktoberfest was moved up on the annual calendar from mid-October to late September.

The expression Altweibersommmer is composed of three words – alt (old), Weiber (women), and Sommer (summer). But it does not necessarily have anything to do with age or women, although it does, of course, have something to do with summer.

Actually the word Weiber (which is, incidentally, considered somewhat derogatary and outdated these days – most German women prefer to be called Frauen, thank you very much) in the context of Altweibersommer does not refer, directly at least, to women at all. Instead it refers to busy Baldachspinnen, a type of spider, and the so-called weiben (threads) they use to spin their webs and on which they sail through the skies. In northern German dialects these Altweibersommerfäden were called Metten, Mettken or Mettjen, which was eventually changed in meaning because it sounded so similar to Mädchen (girls).

According to supersistious local belief, these spider webs were also considered to be the webs of elves, dwarves, Nornen (?) or the Virgin Mary (Marienfäden, Mariengarn, Marienseide, Marienhaar or Unserer Lieben Frauen Gespinst, Mutter Gottes Gespinst). Other expressions were Ähnlsummer, Frauensommer, Mädchensommer, Mettensommer, Mettkensommer, Metjensommer, Witwensömmerli, Liebfrauenhaar and fliegender Sommer. According to local legend and lore, the belief set in that a girl would soon be married if some of the flying spider strands got caught in her hair.

Meanwhile, a regional court in the city of Darmstadt, located south of Frankfurt, determined in 1989 that the use of the expression Altweibersommer through the media did not constitute and infringement on the personal rights of older ladies.

In other countries a similar expression is used: In Hungary, Poland and Russia this time of year is called, similar to the German usage, Weibersommer (Hungarian: vénasszonyok nyara, Polish: babie lato, Russian: babje leto). In North America it is called Indian Summer, or été indien, in Quebec. In Germany, by contrast, “Indian Summer” refers to the changing colors of the fall foliage in the New England States. German tourists visiting the northeastern United States might, in this vein, for instance say: “Let’s take a drive through the New England States and enjoy the glorious colors of the Indian Summer!”

In Finland, this time of year is referred to as Ruska-Aika (time of the brown coloring) and in Sweden it is called the brittsommar (birgatta summer). In the Mediterranean countries this warm period happens later in the year, in November, and is referred to as the St. Martins Summer.

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