“Le pea-coat”, a Canadianism?

canadian peacoat

*le pea-coat

Once in a while I reencounter this rarish Chinook Jargon word that has always caused my brain a mild itch that I’ll get to momentarily: lapikwo “frock; short-coat” (as given in Father St Onge’s manuscript dictionary).

As a Jargon word having the same spelling, this turns up also in Demers’ 1871 dictionary, prayer book, etc.  Nothing  to surprise us there, because St Onge was the editor of that volume.    I don’t find it elsewhere.

My colleague Marie-Lucie Tarpent, a talented linguist and a native speaker of French, has suggested the following view of lapikʰwo in the 2012 Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa dictionary:

l'habit court

l’habit court

mlt proposes French “l’habit court” \l abi kur\ ‘the short coat’ as the likeliest explanation of this obscure term.

— page 276

This analysis, 100% sound, nonetheless surprised me.  Because from first blush onward, this word of Jargon has seemed to me like a blend:

  • French la (or le) “the”, PLUS
  • English peacoat “style of short jacket typically worn by sailors”

And we do have quite a number of French-articled English loans that came into the Jargon, which I’ve come to see as indicators of the Canadian French presence in the Pacific Northwest– perhaps specifically Métis French.  They’re certainly not standard, European, French, which in the 19th century seems not to have borrowed so much from l’anglais.  Examples include:

  • laslí ‘sleigh’, found in Kamloops-area Jargon and in Salish languages around there
  • labíns ‘beans’ known from the Grand Ronde dictionary
  • lapʰéyl ‘can (or pail?)’ from GR
  • legléy ‘grey’ (looks both English and French, cf. Fr. gris)
  • likʰák ‘cock, rooster’ (ditto, cf. Fr. coq) from GR
  • lishát ‘shirt’ from GR

Comparably, we have the widely known lakamás ‘camas’ built on an originally Nez Perce word.

Notice that the French articles la and le are reflected in Jargon pronunciations of varying faithfulness to the originals.  So I infer that the spelling lapikwo with an “a” doesn’t necessarily tell us that the French source had to have been pronounced [la…] as in l’habit court.  Maybe it could’ve been [lə…] as in my hypothetical, therefore asterisked, French *le pea-coat.

What other arguments can we bring in to this examination?

We know that l’habit court ‘the short habit ( ~ uniform of a professionally religious person)’ was a phrase that was in use contemporaneously with the Canadian voyageurs.  A look at Google Books suggests it was widely known in the 19th century.  Was my supposed *le pea-coat really a thing, too?

      1. Con: I personally find l’habit court the more persuasive etymology, on several grounds (read on)!
        Prol’habit court seems to my mind unlikely to have been a frequent expression in voyageur French.  *le pea-coat on the other hand has a more colloquial sound to it, says this nonnative speaker 🙂
      2. Conl’habit court is a mighty good semantic match for lapikwo‘s meaning as “a short jacket”.
        Prol’habit court, if I’m understanding the gist of the texts I find via Google, actually referred to an entire outfit of clothes, not just the jacket that “pea-coat” denotes.
      3. Con: l’habit court is positively known from contemporaneous French-language sources.
        Pro: no observers on the Pacific NW scene give this French phrase as an explanation of lapikwo, even though they customarily point out French etymologies every time they can think of one.
      4. Con: the Catholic missionary priests in the PNW conceivably wore l’habit court, even though it was fairly fancy garb for higher-ranking priests; “our” missionaries were better known for (and as) humble “black robes”.
        Pro: hardly any of the Christian religious phrases and words in Jargon that — unlike this one –we find definitely documented in the missionaries’ usage successfully took hold in other people’s “street Jargon” use.
      5. Con: there is a “t” at the end of “pea-coat”, but none in lapikwo.  Not a perfect match.
        Pro: in Canadian (and other) French dialects, we’re familiar with instances where an original final “t” is variably preserved; just look at Chinook Jargon kapu ‘coat’ from capot/capote.  And note that lapikwo shares most of its meaning with kapu; mutual influence is not unimaginable here.
      6. Con: I’m so far unable to find any documentation of *le pea-coat in French of that era.
        Pro: we don’t find any of the above-mentioned blends either, in French, but the evidence says they existed.  So *le pea-coat is equally believable.
      7. Con: I don’t yet find much mention of the word “peacoat”, even in English, with reference to the Pacific Northwest coast and Indigenous people.
        Pro: Lewis and Clark in 1805 and 1806 noted Indigenous people already wearing what L&C refer to by the synonym “pea jackets”, obtained from trading ships.  And sure enough, “pea jacket” was always the most common 19th-century term in written English for this garment — but “pea-coat” came into vogue in the 1830s, early enough to have entered Chinook Jargon via Canadian French.  That’s the approximate time frame when most of our known CJ French words started to be documented, so what do you think about that?

My own conclusion for the time being is, I’d like to add the etymology *le pea-coat as an asterisked alternative suggestion under any dictionary entry for lapikwo.

As we’ve found when seeking etymologies of plenty other Jargon words (look at siyápuł in the Grand Ronde dictionary), there can be multiple possibilities, and those competing candidates can be just about equally plausible.  They can historically influence each other, too.

It can be worth examining the histories of individual words in what I’m well aware is maddening detail.  Further excruciations can be suggested.  (Does it matter that lapikwo contains “kw” instead of a “k” sound, ends in an “o” rather than an “u” sound, and displays no trace of the original final “r” sound of l’habit court?  Etc.)  But I have to pick a point at which to summarize my reasoning.

The takeaway from my essay today is my belief that we can sometimes retrieve useful historical information from this kind of painstaking exercise.  A particular interest of mine is how Chinook Jargon reveals new details about North American French.  The lower Columbia River varieties including that of Grand Ronde tell us especially juicy things regarding the ultimate fate of French at the periphery of this continent.

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