Racially insensitive verb

I thought of titling this post following my general habit: using the word under discussion.  But in the interests both of warning and enticing potential readers, I went for something more general.  This post is one of the many in my blog that look at Chinook Jargon’s effect on English as we speak it in the Pacific Northwest.

Siwash Squaw apples

A couple of things in succession prompted me to write about the touchy word “siwash” in regional speech, and especially its volatile use as a verb:


  1. I noticed another racially dodgy word with a long pedigree, “niggerhead“, being used by coastal fishers, for example in an audio recording of Southeast Alaska-born fluent CJ speaker Gil McLeod.
  2. And in researching what the heck that word means (a “winch…both a capstan and a bollard“), I found that some truly regional expressions are associated with it, based on “siwash“.

Here’s a survey of several uses.  (I’ll blog separately about noun uses of the same word.)

Bill Casselman’s “Canadian Word of the Day” is a good starting point.  He notes:

  • To siwash once meant to travel quickly, deftly, and lightly, making use of natural shelters on the trail, or sleeping in the open as a First Nations person might do.”  This intransitive verb is given as a BC usage.  One early example I find is from 1916 in the Saturday Evening Post (Volume 189, Issue 1, page 69).  There, an article titled “Betsy’s Holiday Mush” by Helen Van Campen, about a dogsled trip in the Seward, Alaska area, has this:

    “For sleeping, dogs and us siwashed together, the jib under, robe and overcoat over, and Pop outside, to bank us in.”  [Bonus: the same article has “a big skookum woman like you”, “feet heaters and hiyu robes over you” and “an old-timer being a perfect mark for a cheechahco“.]

    To siwash it, a pseudo-transitive since the expletive object “it” has about as specific a referent as the “it” in “it’s raining”, is a variant…  A discussion forum post about snowmachine (snowmobile) camping has this recent citation: “While I like cabins and the comfort they afford, I feel more in touch with the real Alaska and the old timers when I siwash it.”  A century earlier, a 1914 article “Roughing it on the Rat” by Emerson Hough, in Everybody’s Magazine, August 1914 (XXXI:2), pages 169-182, has “You must ‘siwash it’ on the Rat, as the Alaska saying is–sleep little and rough, live hard, work and forge ahead.” (page 171)  The same article also speaks of one person as striving to prove he’s “no chekako” [sic].  There are plenty of examples of “siwashing it” from the 1920s on, with regional poet Gary Snyder contributing his piece “Siwashing it Out Once in Siuslaw Forest”.  This variant seems to remain in use to this day.

  • [G]etting ‘siwashed’ at the local bar.  That simply meant you misbehaved and were summarily kicked out and barred from buying liquor at that establishment until if and when the ban was lifted.”  This passive form of a transitive verb is remembered by a John Davis of Elgin, Oregon.  Maybe it’s related to the old expressions “sitting at the Injun table”, etc. for being given the least desirable place to sit at mealtime–and for being metaphorically in the doghouse.  (Cf. E.R. Jackman and R.A. Long.  1965.  The Oregon Desert. Caldwell, ID: Caxton; pages 166-167.)

The Progressive Alaska blog of October 4, 2011, drew fascinating reader input about further offensive terms in current use, like  the Cordova and Southeast Alaska passive expressions

  • siwashed together” (note that this is different from siwashing together in the Van Campen quote) and
  • siwash-rigged

…both for a, well, jerry-rigged repair.  These two are reported for the 1970s, and could be older, but I haven’t found further examples of them.  

Let me add a note about researching these kinds of expressions.  With the neat tools available to us online now, we can find anything we know how to find.  When you’re hunting for English verb forms like these, you need to consider and search for the various tense forms, and with various pronouns and adverbial prepositions.  I’ll show you a brief illustration of the useful data this turns up about distribution in time and geography:

  • got siwashed — present day, BC +?
  • was siwashed — AK, older NE OR
  • is siwashed — older AK
  • am siwashed was not found
  • were siwashed was not found
  • siwashed him, them, it (older Peace River BC + present day AK)…..NOT FOUND: her, me, us, ’em, ‘im, ‘er
  • siwashed from (present day Texas, and meaning perhaps “wangled from, talked someone out of”!?)
  • siwashed in (no special meaning as a phrase, but I find an amusing example “There are 13 men siwashed in Grand Forks, but as yet, none of them have seen any snakes.” [Greenwood, BC, Ledge, Thursday, October 27, 1910, page 1, column 3.)
  • siwashed up seems to be a phrase with varying senses; present-day AK, BC
  • siwashing (intr. and tr.)…this is predictably frequent from about a century ago to the present day
  • siwasher: a campus magazine at, and name for students of, Knox College, KY since circa 1900 (yawn)
  • siwashee (predictably absent, except in the speech of a fictional Chinese immigrant to Victoria, BC in Marilyn Bowering’s 1989 To All Appearances a Lady.)