Measuring and the chance to mention penises

An awesome but little-known document from the earlier days of known Chinuk Wawa history is Father Lionnet’s vocabulary (1853).

The awesomeness comes from its showing us Jargon as used in its homeland on the lower Columbia River, in what were still fairly early days of the historical record. Plus, if you puzzle through its Frenchy-type spellings, you’ll find that it conveys pretty accurate details of the Indian-oriented pronunciation.

The littleknownness has to do with the ever-popular accidents o’ history effect. Père Lionnet, a Catholic missionary, never to my knowledge intended for this Chinook reference lexicon to be published. When it happened to get passed along to the Smithsonian, it was anonymously. The S.I. printed this word list up, surely in a very limited edition, “for circulation in Oregon”, where it was hoped speakers of the language would make “corrections and additions”–did they? I’ve seen little to indicate that this wonderful little item ever wound up making as much of a mark on the Jargon world as it deserved to.

The internet comes to the rescue. (Twenty years ago, our incipient Jargon community would’ve totally killed for this kind of free access to documents!) Now all of us can read what Lionnet had to say, and it’s interesting for sure.


La mètre en bois, que mes parents appelaient une <<verge>>…

(Photo from Pinterest.)

Just to pick one word of Jargon in it that sticks out: this 1853 document gives a novel word, vege, for ‘measure’. Pronunciation? ([wesh]? [mesh]?) Hard saying.

One thing we do know, this is from French la verge. We can figure out more with some researching…

The online dictionaries define this word in modern French as ‘yard ( =measure), stick, penis [Med.]’!

I’m guessing that that last sense wasn’t current for the Canadians who were working in the Pacific Northwest. I mean that it was either too technical for Joe Voyageur to be slinging around, or too filthy for a priest to write down, or both. (My francophone readers will surely set me straight about this impression of mine, which is partly formed from my recognizing the word as a cognate of Spanish [me vale] verga.)

I’ve looked inside a number of books about Canadian French “canadianismes / barbarismes / locutions vicieuses” — man, there are a lot of these at! Not much indication of this word up north. One source mentions that verge is pronounced varge in true Canadian informal style, not a huge revelation there.

But John McDermott’s wonderful 1941 “Dictionary of Mississippi Valley French” (an ancestor of Chinuk Wawa) does provide us this negative evidence: not mentioning penises.

McD adds that there were two measurement senses of verge in North America. Here is the entire entry for the word:

verge, n.f. A linear and superficial measure. As a (super-
ficial) measure of land, the verge was almost a quarter of an
arpent (Littré). The surveyor’s verge in France varied from
6.15777 to 6.70645 yards (Alexander, Dictionary of Weights
and Measures, 119). As a measure of cloth, the verge equalled
the English ell (Malhiot’s Journal, 223, n. 31). Clapin (329)
gives the equivalent as 92 cm., almost 1 English yard.

We don’t know if our Chinuk Wawa vege was 6 meters or 1. That will remain a mystery.

This vege gets me thinking. I feel it says something interesting that the most extensive documentation of Chinuk Wawa words for measuring looks to go way back, still in HBC times on the Lower Columbia. I have in mind here some better-known words like:

  • (mamuk-)t’ánəm ‘(to) measure’ originating in Tsamosan Salish (from a root t’án that’s related to Lushootseed t̓əd ‘in a row, lined up’ — but contradicting the Grand Ronde Dictionary I say it’s unrelated to words for ‘moon’, which are cognates of Lushootseed and other Coast Salish dat, nat ‘day, 24-hour period’).
  • íɬana ‘a fathom’ from Lower Chinookan, originally a measure of strung dentalia shell money.

You find fewer measuring words in Jargon dictionaries as the years elapse. One reason for that is that speakers came to frequently hear and use (in Jargon) the usual English measuring words. But dictionary makers of the era made a habit of filtering out all the words that didn’t “sound Indian”. So it wasn’t until I taught myself to read Chinuk pipa shorthand, and read letters from Kamloops-area people in Jargon, that I realized we have words like inchisfit, mail, etc.

Anyway, one more notable tip about vege: its French definite article la was not borrowed into Jargon with the noun, unlike so many other French words — look in the “L” section of your dictionary. Which I interpret as evidence that speakers were indeed frequently discussing precise measures, that is, saying how many yards long a thing is: in French you don’t use the definite article in that context (nobody would say *une la verge, deux les verges, …). Thus you’d get Jargon ixt vege, makwst vege, etc.

Now, if we only knew what was being measured with this word!

I’ll leave you with a tiny lesson on how to say what you’ve measured in Jargon. The formula is:


So you get expressions like (Kamloops area style) tawsan fut laplash ‘a thousand feet of lumber’, kwinam pawn saman ‘five pounds of salmon’, iht laputay hwiski ‘a bottle of whiskey’.

If you want to break your mouth, now try singing the “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” song in Jargon… 🙂