lapʰala, a Métis word in Chinuk Wawa


Mississippi Valley map

The Mississippi drainage (image credit: US Army Corps of Engineers)

lapʰala is part-French and part-Native, and it’s the key to S’mores 🙂 

Yes, Jargon learners, you can now discuss toasting marshmallows over the campfire without lapsing into English!

In the Grand Ronde Tribesʹ dictionary of Chinuk Wawa, lapʰala is defined as

  • a verb, ʹto roast food on sticks facing an open fireʹ (also in a Causative construction munk-lapʰala ‘to roast food on sticks facing an open fire’)
  • a noun, ‘toasted food’; ‘roasted, toasted’ (sic)


laphala samən

(Image credit:, I’m not joking)

I figure it’s straightforwardly one word you can also use for the traditional way of roasting salmon, although memory suggests I’ve heard a fluent speaker on such an occasion calling it munk-k’wíshən sámən (‘toasting the salmon’). 


In any case I remember my grandpa cooking his catch this way once, yum…which could distract me from writing the rest of this article…

The question of where lapʰala came from is less straightforward.

The “L” at the beginning of it alerts us to consider if it’s from French, sporting a definite article l’ or la at the beginning as so many Jargon words have. This guess is borne out by some of the early known versions of the word. The Columbian newspaper vocabulary of 1853 and James G. Swan’s 1857 memoir of Shoalwater Bay life both have appola, which supports the idea that the “L” at the start could be taken off without affecting the meaning.

George Gibbs’ 1863 dictionary, based largely on usage around the historicallly central lower Columbia River with its many Canadian French users, has it as (if you read carefully) an undefined verb la-pel-lahʹ with the Causative form mamook lapellah ‘to roast before the fire’ and suggests, “Quaere if from the French.- le foyer.

That “quaere” makes for an amusing digression. Quoting Wikipedia:

Quaere is legal Latin, literally meaning “inquire” or “query”. In legal drafting it is usually used to indicate that the person expressing the view that precedes the phrase may not adhere to the hypothesis following it. For example:

“I am of the view that the defendant had constructive knowledge of the acts of the sub-contractor, although quaere whether this would still be true had the sub-contractor not included a summary of those acts in the joint proposal that was issued.”

The word Quaere has occasionally, as a result of misunderstanding, appeared on maps or in gazetteers. The columnist Miles Kington, writing in The Independent, records that a map-maker c. 1578 was compiling a map of Wiltshire. There was a hamlet where he had doubts about the correct name. He therefore wrote on the draft map Quaere. This was mistaken by the engraver of the map as being the name of a hamlet or village.[1] The error persisted for well over two centuries; the following brief entry appears in a gazetteer published in 1805:

QUÆRE, (Wilts) near Wilton.

Confusion about the meaning of this unfamiliar Latinate word extends to Chinuk Wawa scholars. Samuel V Johnson’s superb 1978 dissertation unwittingly includes le foyer as George Gibbs’s Jargon word for ‘roast’ (page 395)!

What Gibbs was actually saying was that he vaguely guessed la-pel-lahʹ to be a Native-influenced pronunciation of French le foyer ‘the hearth’. That’s an excellent idea, in that it’s very relevant in its meaning, and because of this, the French word may indeed have influenced the Chinuk Wawa word’s usage. But, the matchup of sounds isn’t quite so close; we never find a French “Y” sound turning into a “L” in Jargon, to my knowledge. And, the fact that we also know a Jargon version appola shows that it’s from a French word that starts with a vowel. And nobody seems to have yet presented a more believable French source…

Grand Ronde’s dictionary leaves this vexed question in abeyance with the words, “Etym: of obscure origin.”

But if we shift our focus from thinking about general “French” to the more specific “North American French” etc., we quickly find an answer. Look:

appola: indien — son repas [‘her/his meal’]
— Pamela V. Sing, “Production “littéraire” franco-métisse: parlers ancestraux et avatars”, Francophonies d’Amérique 15:119-140 (2003) page 133, quoting from the 1992 book Henri Létourneau raconte



apola, Ind[ian origin]., n[oun].f[eminine]. A kind of stew (Clapin, 344) or roast (Chamberlain, “Life and Growth of Words,” 140). Frémont spoke of “pieces of the most delicate and choicest meat, roasting on appolas, on sticks around the fire” (Report of Engineering Expedition, 19).
— John Francis McDermott, “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French (St Louis, MO: Washington University, 1941)


Apolas.f., Mot d’origine sauvage, désignant une variété de ragoût, que M. de Gaspé (Anciens Canadiens, p. 192) décrit comme suit: L’apolaou étuvée d’alouettes, avec pommes de terre, mie de pain, et michigouen.” [‘A word of Indian origin, designating a variety of stew, which M. de Gaspé (Canadian Elders, p.192) describes as follows:  “The apola, or parboiled larks, with potatoes, bread crumbs, and parsley.” ‘]
— Sylva Clapin, Dictionnaire canadien-français (Montréal: C.O. Beauchemin et fils, 1902), page 344


apola “brochette de viande cuite au feu” [‘meat skewer cooked in the fire’]
— Peter W. Halford, “Le vocabulaire de la frontière : emprunts lexicaux amérindien/français et français/anglais au dix-huitième siècle“, Lumen 16:93-102 (1997), page 94


apola “brochette de viande ou poisson cuite au feu” [‘skewer of meat or fish cooked by the fire’]
— Peter W. Halford, ” “Je suis un peu au fait du dictionnaire huron” “, in Français du Canada — Français du France (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 200), page 154

So everybody agrees, this is a French word borrowed from a Native American language.

The remaining question is which Native language apola came from. We know it’s got to be from back East in the Mississippi Valley or eastern Canada, where there already existed communities of French-speakers by the time Chinuk Wawa formed. And it’s likely to be from a language that exerted significant influence on North American French. Something Iroquoian? Algonguian?

Anyone have clues?