I recently came across a US phrase, Indian file. This is utterly unheard of in the UK, and probably outside North America; at least I’ve certainly never heard of it. The phrase would be expressed in British English as single file. Why is it called Indian file in the US? I’m guessing the phrase has something to do with the prevalence of Amerindians, but I can’t see any obvious etymology.

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    OOC, where in the USA was the person who said this from? – T.E.D. Jun 16 '11 at 19:24
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    It is known in Britain too (though rare these days) - for example it is mentioned in Brewer. – psmears Jun 16 '11 at 22:24
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    I'm an East Coast native (from English-speaking Canada, now residing in the U.S.), and this is the first I've heard the term. I have always heard and used single file. – John Y Jun 16 '11 at 22:27
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    Use of any "ethnicity" in descriptive terms has vanished in recent decades, because of the possible worry of them being socially inappropriate. Because "indian giver" was perpetuating stereotypes, I believe other "indian-this" and "indian-that" have vanished from common usage. – Warren P Jun 17 '11 at 0:52
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    Were there any negative Indian- combinations other than Indian giver? The ones I know about, Indian summer, Indian corn, and Indian file, don't seem to relate to any negative stereotypes (unlike Chinese fire drill, for example). – Peter Shor Jun 17 '11 at 13:02

Presumably because this is the way the settlers thought American Indians walked on trails through the forest. They probably did; if you have narrow trails, this is the only comfortable way to walk them. By the way, in my experience, it's not "an Indian file"; unlike "single file", "Indian file" is not used as a noun.

They walked Indian file.
or ... arranged Indian file.

but not

*They formed an Indian file.

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    That's true. Indian file is an adverb, not a noun. I hadn't thought of that. – Kit Z. Fox Jun 16 '11 at 19:02
  • @Jez, it's not related to hunting: the idea was that the crafty, naturally warrior-gifted natives walk "indian-file" because in that way nobody knows how many warriors there are in the group. Furthermore, you're supposed to go in the footsteps of the next person. This idea, "single-file" is a completely normal technique used today by military people, "special forces" and the like from time to time...single-file or Indian-file. – Fattie Jun 17 '11 at 9:18
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    Regarding why it's so common in Britain, children's books etc .. of course, the kids do it in Peter Pan (even in the Disney movie) when they are sneaking around - a big cultural reference. – Fattie Jun 17 '11 at 9:19
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    The OED has: “Indian file, the same as single file, so called because the North American Indians usually march in this order.” Reading further, it seems that Indian as a prefix is, or at least was once used, to mean North American in a more general sense than one specially referencing its autochthonous peoples alone. – tchrist Aug 19 '12 at 15:44
  • @Peter: Could you include a link to Indian giver "one who gives a gift and then asks for it back" (1848). Also compare Indian summer. Indian elephant is from c. 1600; Indian corn is from 1620s; to walk Indian file is from 1758 or similar? (Per this discussion under a potential duplicate, I find I'm diffident about just unilaterally making the edit myself! :) – FumbleFingers May 28 at 14:45

Indians in single file:

Indian File

Canadians in single file:

Canadian Indian File

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    Must upvote this for the pictures! – John Y Jun 16 '11 at 22:18
  • Indeed, notice that the painting at top has nothing to do with going animal hunting!!! They're off to attack the white invaders - war. – Fattie Jun 17 '11 at 9:20
  • The sentence was modified by someone else since I wrote this post - I have added single – mplungjan May 28 at 15:45
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    Thank you. It is now good. :) There is nothing more annoying than having someone do that. Make an okay thing into a not-okay thing. Cheers. – Lambie May 28 at 15:55

Just as a point of information, I've lived all my life in the USA, most of it in Oklahoma where (American) Indian peoples are more than 10% of the population and culturally very prominent. To my knowledge I have never before heard that term.

If I had to hazard a guess, this probably relates to the way some particular tribe used to wage war. A lot of tribes looked at warfare as a very stylized affair, much like Europeans did in the Middle Ages. You'd typically get more glory by running up and slapping one of the enemy than by actually killing them (as this was actually more difficult). However, Indians were/are not one people with one coherent culture, so these things can vary quite a bit.

So the term is probably a regionalism.

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    If it is a regionalism, it could be due to the "Indian" people having to move through more or less densely wooded terrain: Single file means that only the man in front has to blaze the trail. Oklahoma being relatively sparsely vegetated in general (from my limited experience), you might not be expected to have heard this. How does that sound? – JeffSahol Jun 16 '11 at 20:51
  • @JeffSahol: the first record of this appears to be in Massachusetts, which was definitely wooded terrain. – Peter Shor Jun 16 '11 at 23:05
  • TED, it is not to do with "stylised" -- it's an ingenious military technique! "Camoflage" for a group march. If a large brigade march side by side, or in rabble, it's easy for someone who comes later to guess it was a large group. But if a large group correctly walks single-file style (stepping in each other's treads, etc), it is much harder to know what is going on. This cliché is seen in a 100 western movies, I'm surprised not so many know this! John Wayne's sidekick -- Look Sarge, there's only one of 'em! John Wayne -- there could be a hundred Comanches walking Indian-file, Easterner! – Fattie Jun 17 '11 at 9:24
  • @JeffSahol - A large amount of the tribes in Oklahoma were forcibly transplanted there from the SE US. That actually is a fairly forested area. They were mostly settled in the eastern part of the state of Oklahoma, which is actually decently forested too, like neighboring Arkansas. There are of course native plains tribes in Oklahoma too, mostly in the western part of the state, but that's not where I live. :-) – T.E.D. Jun 17 '11 at 13:32
  • @Joe Blow - Ah! Good reference there. Perhaps I just haven't watched enough old John Wayne movies. :-) – T.E.D. Jun 17 '11 at 13:34

I've lived in Ireland all my life, and am familiar with this term. I wouldn't have thought of it as an Americanism, though I did know it refers to/derives from "American Indians", not Indian Indians. I don't know what the geographic spread of the phrase is, but I'm nearly certain it's popped up in British children's books.

  • And yet I have lived in Canada and the U.S. all my life, and have never heard this term before! – John Y Jun 16 '11 at 22:21
  • As I've commented above, it's mentioned in Brewer, so it's certainly not restricted to the US. – psmears Jun 16 '11 at 22:25
  • I certainly heard it growing up, and I lived in the U.S. all my life, as well. I expect political correctness has made it less common lately (although Indian file, unlike Indian giver, is not pejorative). – Peter Shor Jun 16 '11 at 22:59
  • @JohnY Would you mind telling us what region of the US? See my comment under T.E.D. above. :) – Lambie May 28 at 15:34

Just read this in Age of Anxiety (WH Auden, 1947):

"Along the esker Following a fox with our fingers crossed Or after an ogre in Indian file, We stole with our sticks through a still world of Hilarious light . . ."

Auden puts these words in the mouth of an English woman living in New York, who is recounting a childhood memory. And of course Auden himself was English-born. That would suggest to me that the term was known in UK English usage.

  • Auden lived in the U.S. from 1939 on, so you can't conclude that it's known in the UK from Auden. – Peter Shor Oct 31 '17 at 1:04

I was born and raised in the UK and have long known this term, though most likely through my fairly wide lifelong reading. As already noted, the term has the same meaning as "single file". In fact, it is also syntactically equivalent: both are used adverbially. E.g.

To walk (in) single file.


I am surprised no one has mentioned this so far: In the U.S. a common saying is

single file, Indian style

which might be used, say, as an indication to other members of a group walking together to use a single file. A native of the western U.S., I've never before heard the term Indian file, though.

  • I'm a native of California, and although I've never heard anyone say "Indian file", I've often seen it in (old) books. But this is the first time I've ever heard of 'single file, Indian style.' Where is it common? – MT_Head Jun 17 '11 at 7:02
  • @MT_Head: Well, my wife and I grew up in different counties in northern California, and we were both familiar with 'single file, Indian style' in our childhoods. A little research shows it is sometimes used as a 'call' in square dancing. – mgkrebbs Jul 10 '11 at 0:21

Boston Public Schools (i.e., Boston, Massachusetts, USA), 1950s, commonly used by teachers to instruct children to single-file (used here as a verb).

  • Can you cite any source? – itsbruce Oct 8 '12 at 23:32
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    This doesn't explain why it is called Indian, which is the focus of the question. – Kazark Oct 9 '12 at 0:14

Because that is how the Red Indians hunted — one after the other — following the trail of the animals.

protected by Mitch Oct 8 '12 at 21:25

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