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In an interesting article, “The Voyage of the Hope: 1790-1792” by F.W. Howay (Washington Historical Quarterly XI(1):3-28, January 1920), I noticed a recurring word of the early Pacific Northwest coast fur trade:

He [Ingraham] obtained almost all the strangers’ [Haidas’] furs, even to the cutsarks that they wore in exchange for blue jackets and trousers. (page 10)

Two small and indifferent fur garments (cutsarks) were offered [by the Haidas] for an iron collar; but Ingraham refused, being determined to keep the price up, inasmuch as five of them constituted a good day’s work for the smith. (page 14)

What this first brought to mind was Cutty-Sark, a sexy Scottish witch whose scant cladding Robert Burns made famous in 1791. Her figurehead adorns the famous trading ship of the same name (see above).

But that ship was built much later, in 1869, and besides, in another of Howay’s beautifully researched historical pieces, “A Yankee Trader on the Northwest Coast, 1791-1795” (reprinted from Washington Historical Quarterly 21(2)), the use of a different spelling sends us in a different direction:

… at Bucareli Bay, Alaska … The Resolution had collected … 5 cutsacks (or robes, usually of three skins) … (page 7)


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And once on that trail, you’ll find plenty more spelling variations — which is a typical indicator of a word that’s just recently started being used in English. From Hul’qumi’num Coast Salish country on Vancouver Island, we find in “Boit’s, John, Log of the Columbia, 1790-3 (Reprint)”, ed. by F.W. Howay and T.C. Elliott (Oregon Historical Quarterly XXII (1898):

Under date 18th June, Haswell records that he delivered to Capt. Gray 238 sea otter skins 142 Tails 23 Cootsacks and 19 pieces.” … The cootsacksor cutsarks, were Indian sea otter cloaks, usually composed of three skins.
— page 318)

And a little earlier, in Lingít country (the vicinity of Yakutat, Alaska, given as 59° 16ʹ N and “220° 11ʹ East”) we have this from John Meares, “Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789, from China to the N.W. Coast of America” (London: J. Walter, 1791):

They now dropped the best bower anchor in twenty-seven fathoms water, and purchased of the natives several cotsacks or dresses of sea-otter skins, and a pair of gloves of the same. (page 152)

Very early in the morning five canoes came along-side, when forty sea-otter skins and several cotsacks were purchased … (page 153)

I could go on tallying spellings, but that would be missing the main idea of cutsarks.

To my mind, the notable fact is the wide dispersion of the term through the lands of numerous Native nations.

Get a load of two full sentences of Chinook Jargon’s pidgin ancestor, Nootka Jargon, from yet another ethnic group’s lands:

Klue shish Kotsuck — wick kum atack Nootka.
(Nuuchahnulth Chief Maquinna to Jewitt & Thompson, pp.245-246 of F.W. Howay, “Origin of Chinook Jargon”, citing Jewitt’s “Narrative”)

Howay implies but doesn’t spell out that this means in English “Good cutsark — Nuuchahnulths (Nootkas) don’t know (it).” He takes the trouble to footnote it:

The maritime traders appropriated the word kotsuck as cutsark, meaning a robe made of three or more sea-otter or other skins. It was a case of exchanging words all around.

Maquinna’s sentiments strongly suggest a vector for the great geographical spread of the word cutsark: The newly arrived Euro-American traders, scouring the coast (as Howay shows they did) for furs, with the aid of the tool that was Nootka Jargon.

The etymology of the word itself is natively Nuuchahnulth. Compare from the anonymous 1791 manuscript that I’ve referred to several times in recent posts here: < quotlukt > ‘skin of an orter [sic]’ (page 197). In modern spelling that’s k̓ʷaƛaq (if it were a modern Grande Ronde Jargon word, you’d spell it as k’wátɬaq), demonstrably formed from the root k̓ʷaƛ ‘sea otter’ and the suffix -aq ‘hide, fur’.

I found it pretty fascinating to learn a word cutsark that became a “term of art” in the Northwest Coast fur traders’ English, apparently due to its use in their Nootka Jargon. The implication of the evidence above is that it would’ve been in use by Native people as well, far from and unrelated to the Nuuchahnulth folks who originally gave us the word.  

I feel I would be speculating with very little restraint to imagine further that cutsark is a source of Chinuk Wawa’s kátsaq ‘center, middle’. I reject such a connection, even though one sense that that word does have is the adverbial ‘half(way)’ — which has me picturing Ms. Cutty-Sark’s dress that only reached yay far down.

That ‘halfway’ sense is not explicitly pointed out in the Grand Ronde dictionary. But they do give a fine example: kátsaq-ɬúsh ‘fair, not bad’. (Literally ‘halfway-good’.)

Anyway, the CW word is provided with a rock-solid Lower Chinookan etymology káčak ‘middle’ in the dictionary, a wonderful match in terms of sound and meaning. I buy that. While I keep comparing it with this widespread southwest Washington Salish root kʷac / kwəc ‘half; middle; somewhat’, I can’t make the case for more than a chance resemblance and shared metaphors.

Maybe in future essays here, I can address some other odd words of the early NW Coast fur trade. Stuff like clemons/clamons/clemels, toe(e)s, and racoons surely have worthwhile stories behind them as well!