Now you know: I think “pittuck” is from Salish (+a Chinuk Wawa meditation)

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(Image credit: edisonmuckers)

The other day, my readers saw an obscure Jargon word used for ‘to think’: “pittuck“.

How this word came to be considered part of Chinuk Wawa, is a bit of a mystery.

The earliest dictionary to include it seems to be Canadian, T.N. Hibben’s 1877 edition out of Victoria, BC. It shows up then as pit-tuck in J.K. Gill’s dictionary from Portland, by 1884.

A 1910 original poem or prayer by Charles Hallock (1834-1917, founder of the magazine we still know as Field & Stream), titled “Sentiment à la Chinook”, uses pit-tuck. He clips the “le” off the start of “lemah” ‘hand’, maybe trying to accomplish the rare feat of a Jargon verse that has meter!

hallock sentiment


Nika la-langue halo wa-wa,
Nika tum-tum kopet,
Nika mah-wake ikta tzum;
Pee wake ikta mamook,
Pee pit-tuck me-cika,
Nika wa-wa kla, how-ya, six.

My tongue is mute,
My heart is still,
My hand will nothing write;
Can nothing do,
But think of you,
And bid you, friend, good-night.

— from The Metaphysical Magazine volume XXV (January-June 1910), page 61

(BONUS: Hallock also gives one of the many known Chinook Jargon versions of the Lord’s Prayer, this one seemingly based on the one in George Gibbs’s 1863 dictionary: )

hallock lords prayer


Our Father who stayeth in the above,
(Nesika papa klaxia [sic] mitlite kopa sa-hu-lie),
Good in our hearts be Thy name:
(Klosh kopa nesika tum-tum mika nem):
Good thou Chief among all people;
(Klosh mika tyes [sic] kopa konoway tillicum);
Good Thy will on earth as in the above;
(Klosh mika tum-tum kopa illahe ka-kwa kopa sa-hu-lie);
Give every day our food;
(Potlutch konaway sun nesika muckamuck);
If we do ill (be) not Thou very angry;
(Spose nesika mamook masachie wake mika hyas sollux);
And if anyone evil toward us,
(Pe spose kluxta masachie kopa nesika),
Not we angry toward them;
(Wake nesika sollux kopa kluxta);
Send away far from us all evil.
(Marche siah kopa nesika konaway masachie).

The reason a magazine like this one got into Chinuk Wawa, by the way, is explained in its pages. They were folks who were interested in international peace and understanding. More than once in the 19th century, idealists of that stripe promoted the Jargon as “an international idiom“.

J.K. Gill’s fellow Portlander Laura Belle Downey-Bartlett uses the same word we’re looking at, in the spelling pittick, in her 1914 book of “Chinook-English Songs“.

It remains delightfully puzzling how this word got into the Jargon. Its early appearance north of the border could suggest a Vancouver Island language as its source.

But the T.N. Hibben dictionaries have been discovered (by Samuel V. Johnson in his 1978 dissertation) to trace back to George Gibbs’ highly influential 1863 dictionary, already mentioned. That would help explain a lot — while saddling us with the question of why we don’t find pittuck in the published versions of Gibbs known to us!

Because pittuck looks quite Salish to me. Out of the four main source languages of Chinuk Wawa, it’s obvious that this one isn’t from French or English. And I haven’t found a similar word in old Chinookan, where ‘think’ is something like -kakamit or -łux.

What do you know, southwest Washington Salish provides some truly good matches, though. The documentation of the more inland languages Upper Chehalis and Cowlitz reveals a root /pút/, /pót/ meaning not ‘think’ but the similar ‘know, find out, learn’. This derives from an ancient Proto-Salish root *put ‘right, sufficient, exact, very’, and/or *pit ‘to notice, think’. (Those two old roots seem to have gotten smooshed into one in  modern Upper Chehalis & Cowlitz, whereas Salish languages to the north kept them separate.)

What we know of the coastal Quinault and Lower Chehalis languages turns up no trace of a related usage yet.

But Lower Chehalis (łəw̓ál̓məš) was spoken by many or most of the Chinookans who participated in early Jargon history. And Lower Chehalis has been turning out to be a major early contributor to Chinuk Wawa. And Lower Chehalis has more words in common with Cowlitz and Upper Chehalis than with Quinault. And there is a common suffix in all of these languages shaped like =(ə)q ‘head, words’ and so on, which could conceivably be involved in a word for knowing or thinking.

So I propose a previously unknown Lower Chehalis Salish word, having a root approximately shaped pít (or pət, which would be the de-stressed version of either *put or *pit), with a suffix like =əq.

This is not a crazy idea.

Previous work that my readers have seen on this website has sometimes shown Chinuk Wawa words whose most likely explanation is a Lower Chehalis word that just happened not to get directly documented as Lower Chehalis — words that we only know from their presence in the Jargon.

And like quite a few of the Lower Chehalis words in Chinuk Wawa, this pittuck dropped out of use by the middle or late 1800s. It seems to have been crowded out by the super-omnipresent təmtəm ‘think, mind, heart, feel’ etc.

What do you think?