lakʰaset, a Canadianism

Thanks to the great questions people ask, Chinuk Wawa discoveries happen.


(Image credit: BBGunds4Less)

Someone was telling me the other day how a French speaker found the idea of the word cassette meaning ‘box’ or ‘trunk’ — as does Chinuk Wawa’s borrowing of it, lakʰasét — mystifying.

In modern French, it typically means a cassette audio tape. (I remember liking a slangy way of writing that, that I once saw: K7. Get it?) Or, it means ‘treasure box; small box’.


But sure enough, our mystery is easily solved. In its use generically for the larger ‘box’, this diminutive cassette, alternatively caissette, turns out to be a distinctly New World French expression.

John Francis McDermott’s wonderful little “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French” has:

caissette, n[oun].f[eminine]. A trunk or box. Variant for cassette. Not a diminutive. Frequently used for personal baggage or for merchandise…

McDermott goes on to quote John Bradbury from 1811 on the Upper Missouri with the Astoria party (“Travels in the Interior of America, 1809-1811”), associating this word with Canadians.
An 1894 academic article by Alexander Francis Chamberlain (who incidentally had personal experience of Chinook Jargon and published studies on it) likewise explicitly makes cassette a Canadianism of the fur trade: “The Life and Growth of Words in the French Dialect of Canada“. (Page 139, defining it as ‘trunks and boxes’.)
more recent journal article by Peter Halford has on page 96 cassette from the journals of Alexander Henry II circa 1796, defined as sorte de malle (‘a kind of trunk’).
Interestingly and surprisingly, Michif makes do with la bwet for ‘box’. On first inspection, LaVerdure, Allard, and Crawford’s 1983 dictionary seems to hold no trace of la cassette. As a rule, we find Michif’s French components closely paralleling those of Chinuk Wawa, since both languages trace back to a Métis ancestry. The reason for this one particular divergence isn’t yet apparent to me.
Summarizing the news of the day: Chinuk Wawa’s word for ‘box’, which it now uses to form the names of pretty much all modern appliances including telephones, originated in a North American French dialect word. This hasn’t been pointed out before.