The days of a fishy guy who visited the Makahs


(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Look what turned up in my net! Some brief but vivid notes about Chinook Jargon as used in Washington Territory’s Makah Indians, 1880.

THE DAYS OF A MAN: being memories of a naturalist, teacher and minor prophet of democracy: Volume One, 1851-1899” is a lavishly illustrated vanity edition by David Starr Jordan (1851-1931). (Yonkers-on-Hudson, New York: WORLD BOOK COMPANY, 1922).

I’m sure Jordan’s college classmates found something fishy and/or funny in him being an ichthyologist named for a Bible river 🙂 If you want to find something truly odd to investigate, read Jordan’s Wikipedia entry, which tells how he was educated at a girls’ school, apparently helped cover up the murder of a benefactor, and became a famous advocate of eugenics. No joke.

In his surveys of Northwest coast fishes during territorial days, Jordan found himself at the corner where America meets Canada and the Jargon was still in full common use. His mission of introducing Eastern fishes causes me qualms, but some of his observations are really interesting…

Neah Bay and Waada Island at the entrance of the
Straits of Juan de Fuca, the outlet to Puget Sound.
There on the Makah Indian Reservation we saw
much of the natives, and acquired some mastery
of the Chinook jargon — a mixture of Siwash,
English, and French, comparable to the “pidgin
English” of China. A white man is Boston man;
an Indian, Siwash; very, hyas; worthless, cultus.
Thus hyas cultus Boston man means a white idler;
Boston Siwash, a negro or Chinese. Meaning often
matches sound; skookum chuck, for example, de-
notes a waterfall. French words are not uncommon,
laselle being a saddle — latete, the head. And
Siwash boys are frequently eager to secure “Boston
names,” among which Lincoln is a favorite one. (page 223)

I see no indication that the author lingered in this region, but he accurately documents peculiarities of the Chinuk Wawa dialect used from roughly Puget Sound northward. Hyas, literally ‘big’, holds onto that meaning around the Columbia River and at Grand Ronde Reservation in Oregon, but it does characteristically “grammaticalize” into an intensifier ‘very’ north of there. The expression Boston Siwash is pretty much news to me, and it sounds authentic as if it were a calque on local Indigenous languages. The fashionability of getting a Whiteman name from, I infer, a genuine Whiteman, rings true for the era as well.

The one inaccuracy in his account probably reveals the source he learned Chinuk Wawa from: Jordan repeats the old chestnut that ‘waterfall’ is onomatopoeic in the language. Which is true. If and only if you’re talking about təmwáta and/or tə́mtsəqw ‘waterfall’ with their shared element tə́m (written timm or tumm in older sources all the way back to Lewis & Clark)! Skookum chuck (skúkum tsə́qw), though, is a compound of two meaningful words (‘powerful water’), neither one of which is sound-symbolic.

By the way, in these more northerly coastal areas, I’m accustomed to skookum chuck being applied more to ‘rapids’, both riverine and tidal. If the rapids were skookum enough, I can understand Jordan interpreting local people as referring to the downstream end when they may have meant the broader zone of turbulence.* Such are the dynamics of speaking a foreign language, and pidgins like Chinuk Wawa are “second languages” to all of their users.

*Here I ponder the 19th-century English noun ‘cascades’, which is famously what one longtime Jargon hotspot got named: the Dalles (Oregon)-area stretch of the Columbia. My understanding is that that was a zone typified by features you’d have to either call minor waterfalls or huge rapids–skookum chuck! 

Talking about the lower Fraser River, Jordan seems to say that “sockeye” as a name for a salmon species is either from Chinook Jargon, used in it, or both; we know that its etymology is Coast Salish from that same region:

Sockeye” is a corruption of the Chinook name, which sounds rather like
Sukkegh. (page 224)

Another fish name that’s definitely associated with the Jargon shows up in his reminiscence of the Columbia River:

Eulachon” looks
like Greek, but it is really Indian; as spoken by
the natives, it would be spelled ”Ulchn.” (pages 228-229)

There are a couple of brief comments here and there in the book about Siwashes, potlatches, and so on, but the above quotes seemed the most interesting to me. Read the original book for the full picture. Ironically for a fish guy, though, Jordan is a kind of dry writer…