Trains (not planes or automobiles) in Upper Chehalis

I was trying to figure out a long, complicated and obscure Lower Chehalis word by comparisons with nearby languages when I came upon a Chinook Jargon loan into Upper Chehalis Salish.

railroad tracks

M. Dale Kinkade’s 1991 Upper Chehalis dictionary has on page 131:

Pai-a-tsik’-tsĭk-cu-was “its door, ME its road”

(I’ve bolded the CJ part.)

“ME” indicates that the source for this form is Myron Eells’ 1885 manuscript vocabulary of Upper Chehalis. The “cu-was” part is pure Salish.

I’m inclined to think Dale’s gloss of this sequence of hyphenated syllables as “its door” is unlikely. Read on.

Paia-a-tsik’-tsik (literally ‘fire wagon’) can easily mean either “train” or “automobile” in Chinook Jargon varieties.

But in 1885, autos weren’t part of the landscape; the only fire wagons were steam locomotives.

Doors on cars are a very important feature, since you have to constantly open and close them in the operation of the vehicle.  On trains, not so much.

Here is where I need to change your life (thanks, Paula Poundstone), with a very cool fact about Salish languages.  They have one and the same word for “door” and “path/road”.  Which makes a ton of sense, doesn’t it?  This word is the “cu-was” bit in Upper Chehalis, where the “S” at the end makes it mean ‘its door; its road’.

So the phrase I quoted from Dale’s dictionary clearly means “railway”, “railroad tracks”–literally “train’s road”.

The value of today’s lesson is threefold:

  1. You will find unexpected Chinook Jargon data tucked away in the funniest places if you have eyes for it.
  2. You can always find an excuse for referencing one of your favorite movies (“Stand by Me”) 🙂
  3. Serendipity is a force to be reckoned with: my day so far has included a radio story on the 20th anniversary of River Phoenix’s death (he’s pictured above) as well as our surprise find of non-cross-referenced Chinook Jargon material in Dale’s dictionary — both items relating to railroads. Plus my friends’ excellent NYC band, Versus, sang a song about River Phoenix. Plus they’ve played shows in northwest Oregon, the setting of “Stand by Me”.

I could go on…