Do cows look stupid to you?


sleepy cow? (image credit: Crystal Graphics)

sexy eyed cow

sexy cow? (image credit: Pinterest)







Here’s a novel etymological proposal for Chinuk Wawa.

It’s a word that has long remained a puzzle “of obscure origin”, according to the Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary.

Getting right to my idea:

músmus ‘cow’ could potentially come from a southwest Washington Salish language, such as the Lower Chehalis that we often discuss here. The necessary components are known to exist there:

  • stem músm — which itself is known to be loaned as the word músum ‘sleep; have sex’ in Chinook Jargon — formed from:
    • root m(‘)ús ‘sleep’
    • suffix -m ‘Middle Voice’
  • “lexical” suffix -us, -əs ‘face; eye(s)’

Hold that thought. Now for the tricky part.

I’m not going to go quite so far as to suggest SW WA Salish as the original source for músmus. 

Instead, I’m starting out acknowledging the previous hypotheses in the Jargon research world.

  1. For one thing, you have the known presence of Algonquian-language speakers (Cree, Ojibwe) in the lower Columbia River homeland of Chinuk Wawa. As George Gibbs (1863) credits Alexander Caulfield Anderson with pointing out — and ACA had plenty of early-day personal experience of the speech community centred on Fort Vancouver — those folks obviously knew their native-language word for ‘bison; ox’, mustus. Anderson’s 1858 published vocabulary doesn’t reflect this observation, although my thoughts are provoked by his inclusion of another known Algonquian word, < moose >, for ‘elk’!

    By the way, even though the Métis identity of so many fur-trade employees often induces me to invoke comparisons between the Algonquian-French mixed language Michif and Chinook Jargon, I’m not finding traces of mustus there.

    The point is, mustus is very likely to have exerted some degree of influence on the incorporation of músmus into Chinuk Wawa.

  2. You also have to acknowledge, as the Grand Ronde dictionary quotes me on, that there exist essentially identical words, approximately mosmas ~ musims, in two Oregon Native languages close to the Jargon homeland. The catch is, these Klamath and Molala words seem to mean ‘black-tailed deer’!

What I’m suggesting by making a connection with Salish today is this: The many Salish speakers who were an integral part of the Chinuk Wawa community from Day 1 can be imagined to have heard mustus, and then changed it a teeny bit so that it sounded more sensible to their ears.

Because a Salish word *músmus ought to have a literal meaning, which I infer to be ‘sleepy eyes’. (Or ‘sexy eyes’? Yikes!)

Do you think cows have sleepy facial expressions?

Full disclosure: I’m not finding any compound words built on the known stem musm in local Salish.

But one thing I do find is, also in local Chinuk Wawa, a phrase < musom-tomtom > (músum-tə́mtəm). Literally ‘sleep(y)-heart(ed), sleep(y)-mind(ed)’, this is defined as ‘stupid’ in Father St Onge’s 1892 manuscript dictionary.

So there was conceivably an accepted metaphor SLEEPY ~ STUPID in the local speech environment. Which could lend some support to my Salish ‘sleepy eyes’ idea.

We definitively know that plenty of animals are called by descriptive words in SW WA Salish, just as we see in many Chinuk Wawa names for them. Picking some at random, local Salish’s ‘rat’ or ‘mouse’ is literally something like ‘secret-taker-tail’. Bald eagle is ‘white tail’. And a word for ‘deer’ is ‘jumper’.

So, when a brand-new kind of animal was brought in and was called by a weird foreign-sounding word, why not use the old familiar way of naming it?

What do you think?