Sex! Or, why is the “M-word” taboo?

In Chinook Jargon dialects, the word “moosum” (“sleep”) is more or less tabooed.

The M word

In some, which I associate with the Coast and which I tend to perceive as older, there’s a phrase “tenas moosum”.  Literally this is “a little (bit of) sleep” but it was really used to mean “having sex”.  I refer you to the bawdy song “Seattle Illahee”.

There was also “kapswalla moosum”, literally “to steal (some) sleep”.  It meant about the same thing, maybe with the nuance of what we now call a quickie.

So the “M-word” was long established as sounding naughty.

And in the Interior’s younger dialects like the one used around Kamloops, I’ve noticed that the word “moosum” was hardly used at all.  Not even to say “polaklie nika halo moosum”–“I hardly slept last night” 😉

Now, there was a word for “sleep” in that region.  Guess what it was?  “Sleep”, from English.

And just as I’ve noticed with countless other words recently borrowed from English into CJ, this one retained English semantics.  In creolist linguistics terms, then, these borrowings weren’t simply “relexifications” of the existing, nearly synonymous CJ words.  In other words, “sleep” meant “sleep” in Jargon.

Why did a word for a basic human function become, well, a word for another basic human function?

I think about it in light of the M-word’s etymology.  Let me suggest this: “moosum” originated in a Salish language or languages.  I’d guess Lower Chehalis, because that was spoken in the earliest homeland of CJ.

That’s only an educated guess;  I haven’t found much Lower Chehalis data yet.  The best proof I can give you is that there’s a common word-root “mus” in Salish languages meaning “to feel about, touch, feel with the hand, fumble”.  (This is in Aert Kuipers’s “Salish Etymological Dictionary”, page 69.)

And there is a “middle voice” suffix “-m” across Salish languages.  You could think of this broadly as making an action have an indeterminate object.  So maybe “moosum” meant something like “feel around for something”, or “touch you-know-what”.

There’s a totally different root in Salish languages that straightforwardly means “sleep”, “7it” (Kuipers page 20; “7” is a glottal stop).  So my guess leads me to think the earliest Chinook Jargon involved a slang expression for sex.  And if sex involves lying down (who knows?), this could’ve been extended to sleeping.

Whatever happened behind the closed doors of history, it’s important to realize that proper use of Chinook Jargon involves a sensitivity to the M-word.  This is another of the countless imprints left by Native cultures on CJ, making it what I’ve called a “co-Aboriginal language”.