Highass close scucum Boston man

Clinton De Witt Smith

Clinton DeWitt Smith (image credit: FindAGrave.com)

In Idaho’s history, you have to look either mighty early or mighty late to scare up any Chinuk Wawa.

Today let’s glance at the former, keeping in mind that for those outside the region of Chinook Jargon’s frequent use, “jargon” was a contemporary classist deprecation meaning “nonsense” or “unsophisticated, uneducated talk”.

Yup, that’s the reason so many pidgins got named “jargons”. Chinook Jargon, Mobilian Jargon, Slavey Jargon, Jargon Loucheux, Delaware Jargon, Trader’s Jargon… Which in turn led to what I consider a meaningless technical term in contact linguistics.

But back to our program:

While southern Idaho hosted many a non-Native newcomer as early as the fur trade forts and brigades beginning circa 1800, and witnessed the stream of pioneers along the Oregon Trail towards the middle of that century, permanent settlement in that state’s territory took its sweet time reaching critical mass.

Among the things that that timeline explains is the scarcity of Idaho newspapers before the Civil War, by which time anything you could’ve called a heyday of Chinuk Wawa in that region was a picturesque memory.

Among the scant few periodicals of such vintage is the Idaho World of Idaho City (the erstwhile “Bannock”) in Boise County, which was kind of the cradle of Settler civilization thereabouts. While the war still raged, a pseudonymous letter came in to the editor from Boise City, as the present-day capital (36 miles away from I.C.) was then known.

The edition of May 6, 1865 carries this letter on page 1 (column 2), as it’s of vibrant interest to the populace, reporting as it does on the just-accomplished and perhaps not entirely above-board removal of the capital from Lewiston to Boise. (See “Those Dirty Scoundrels Stole Our Capital” for juicy details.) The leading man here is “The Hon. C[linton]. DeWitt Smith, Secretary and Acting Governor of our Territory”, I guess a member of the New York state political dynasty, who would be dead months later.

While I’m far removed from the events, it seems to me the writer makes all kinds of public insinuations about people’s behavior–couching it in the guise of humor to protect himself.

One of the bitter jokes comes in this paragraph, which makes clear why I’ve supplied the details of setting above (punctuation is preserved):

The old War Horse convened the little band to ascertain the cause of their fears; and I of course understanding Jargon very well, volunteered as an interpreter for my friends, when I overheard the following speech in Jargon, made by the aspirant for the office of Probate Judge. “You ask Sir, why did we withdraw our petitions? I assure you sir, we were right. He’s a pretty Union man aint he, HIGHASS CLOSE SCUCUM Boston man [háyásh-ɬúsh skúkum bástən mán, ‘a very good strong American’, echoing colloquial English phrasing]Why, sir, have you been this long in finding out his political principles. Don’t you see him walking arm-and-arm with that renowned secessionist I. N. Smith. That is enough to convince any man of his politics. You bet. By gar, he cant put any of his sweet‘ning in my coffee. I will write to Abraham right away, and have him removed.” 

I learn since, that his friends persuaded him not to write to Lincoln. That it is better to bear the “ills we have, than to fly to others that we know not of.”

[signed] BEESWAX

(Note that “beeswax” is 19th-century slang for “a tedious bore”–a “mansplainer” in 2018 terms; it’s thought that our present-day admonition “mind your own beeswax” developed from the loss of a crucial comma in “mind your own, beeswax”.)

Today’s tidbit brings us precious little Chinook Jargon, but it’s the perfect illustration that this language, like all pidgins, went hand-in-hand with whatever other lingo was heard in the streets!