“Chinoos” for “tobacco”


el comancho

El Comancho (Image credit: iCollector.com)

I have questions, dear readers.

It’s an established fact the the prototypical word in Chinook Jargon for ‘tobacco’ is pronounced k’áynuɬ. With the popping-K sound at the beginning & the slurpy-L sound at the end. It’s an old Chinookan (tribal language) word.

So how the heck did this fella come up with < chinoos >?

chinoos 1



Ch-together, I as in tin; oo as in coo; accent -chin- and pronounce Chin-noo-s-s with hissing sound of s at end of last syllable.

Chinoos is Chinook for tobacco and nearly always means smoking tobacco. It never means the “killikinick” [kinnikinnik] mixture, but

chinoos 2

always tobacco and nothing else. A cigar is “stick-chinoos.” Pipe tobacco is simply “chinoos,” or sometimes “Tenas chinoos” (Little tobacco), or “Kokshut chinoos” (All-broken-up tobacco). Chewing tobacco is “Muck-a-muck chinoos.” Use same as English “tobacco” is used in conversation.

— Walter Shelley “El Comancho” Phillips, “The Chinook Book” (Seattle: R.L. Davis Printing Company, 1913), pages 23-24

How the heck did he come up with that pronunciation? I haven’t noticed it anywhere else in the whole wide Wawa world.

Granted: many Native languages of our Pacific NW region were then finishing up a sound shift from older “k” sounds to newer “ch” sounds. But we have few if any documented instances of any Indians confusing these two in Chinook Jargon.

Granted: some non-Native folks had difficulty pronouncing the “slurpy-L” sound. But we know of astonishingly few people who couldn’t hear the difference between it and “s”. (John Muir, the famous naturalist, was one if we judge by his Chinuk Wawa jottings such as < sagh-a-ya > ‘how do you do’ in “Travels in Alaska“.)

Maybe Phillip’s pronunciation of this word was influenced by an American English slang word that I think was new and fun in 1913, “snoose“, meaning chewing tobacco. My research into old newspapers and books suggests that this word had just caught on in the Midwest, and probably in association with lumber camps staffed largely by Scandinavians — which describes the entire Northwest of that time!

But ol’ El C. specifies that you stress the first syllable of the Jargon word, agreeing with me and everybody else. Which reduces the likelihood of a pronunciation ch-noose having existed.

Nor do I think the place name Chenoos/Chenois Creek, on the border between Lower Chehalis and Quinault Salish traditional territories, near Grays Harbor in Washington State, has anything to do with it. To the extent I’ve heard anyone say it aloud, that’s ch-noose, but nobody thinks it has a connection with tobacco. It seems to have been a Native chief’s name. (Edited to add: in his “Totem Tales” book, Phillips actually claims < chinoos > is from the Quinault language. I only find k̓áynuɬ in that language. Huh…maybe he does associate the creek name with ‘tobacco’?)

So what’s the deal? Why did El Comancho mutate this one word, and no others, in this way?

Any ideas, folks?