Shit’s Chinook, chittim ain’t
I keep noticing odd-smelling claims around the Internet that “chittim” is a word from Chinook Jargon. I haven’t found proof. I think it ain’t.
Chittim (or chittem or chittam) is said to be cascara sagrada, buckthorn. Rhamnus purshiana. There was a time in the Pacific Northwest when folks harvested its bark to make easy money. This wildcrafted product was sold to manufacturers of laxatives.
My goal isn’t to establish the etymology of chittim, but various sources easy to find online, such as the published book “O Brave New Words: Native American Loanwords in Current English“, suggest it’s from a Muskogean language. (Think Choctaw, Chickasaw, etc.) There’s also some crossing of wires with a biblical reference to a land, and “wood of”, Chittim or Kitim. Any of those might be right on track.
What concerns us is, there’s a folk etymology afoot that’s absolutely reasonable as far as it goes. It proceeds from the bark’s laxative qualities to seeing “chittim” as deriving from English “shit ’em”. And because this shrub grows in the Pacific Northwest among other regions, this pidginy putative paternity is ascribed to Chinook Jargon. And “shit” was a word of CJ–aside from its occurrence in a Bible story, I’ve seen it in a term for laxative, “shit lamachin“. (Pooping medicine as my young kids call it.)
That’s just the thing. CJ had its own phrase for laxatives.
And there really weren’t that many pidgin-English-looking terms actually known in CJ. I’ve found a handful around Kamloops: sillim (to sell), katshim (to catch), pashem or washem (to wash). And if you asked me, the -m on these might be due to strong Salish-language influence rather than English. So the case for CJ “chittim” weakens.
It gets worse when folks try involving a variant form of the tree name, “chitticum”, claiming it represents “shit come[s]”. I expect such a phrase in actual CJ would be more like “shit chako”, i.e. using the usual word for “come”.
It would seem that what was originally called chittimwood in North America was a different plant, Sideroxylon lanuginosum. Which grows–you guessed it–not in the Northwest but in the center of the continent. The earliest use I’ve easily found of “chittim” for a Northwest tree is in an Astoria newspaper in 1888 (synonym “Oregon hickory”). Outside our core PNW region, I find an 1859 Sacramento paper equating “chittim wood” with the “medrona” (madrona / arbutus). That’s surely later than the word’s use farther east.
The last nail in the coffin, for me, is that I’ve never found a word for the buckthorn / cascara tree, or its bark, in any oldtime Jargon word lists.
As they say on that TV show, “This myth is busted.” No shit!
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