Etymologies or “oops”?

hbc knife

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[There is a sequel to this article, too.]

Regarding Louis Labonte Jr.’s Chinuk Wawa word spelled eoptaths and meaning ‘knife, knives’, I have an idea I’d like to run past my readers and see whether you think it’s promising or misguided.

I always thought the “u” in úptsax̣ was the Chinookan feminine noun prefix, but Labonte’s use of the masculine noun prefix right alongside it gives me pause for thought about early Jargon’s variability.

It’s kind of hard to check on this in the primary data on Chinookan languages, I find, because as the Grand Ronde dictionary points out, this seemingly Chinookan word for ‘knife’ is hard to find.

The Chinookans had ancient words for the concept, specifically ‘stone knife’, that resembled Kathlamet’s aqiwíqi (Boas 1901:11). But only one source that I know of, George Gibbsʹs ʼAlphabetical Vocabulary” of Chinookan, has úptsax̣ — there defined as ‘knife’ or ‘iron’. Now that’s interesting.

I’m starting to think úptsax̣  could reflect a newly coined word among Chinookans after Europeans showed up.

Speculating only wildly (!), I might observe that several Jargon nouns taken from Chinookan have what resemble the old gender prefix(es), plus a sound /p/ that I might imagine to be a prefix indicating an “Instrument” or tool in the old language, then what can be taken as a meaningful root:

  • (?) ʔa[-]p[-]tsit ‘stern, rudder’
  • i[-]p[-]t’łikʰi ‘curve, arc’ [this may have been intended by Father St. Onge as ‘bow’, which is arc in his native French]
  • u[-]p[-]łəx̣ ‘liniment, salve’
  • ú[-]p[-]qwəna ‘basket’
  • ú[-]p[-]q’ati ‘bow’
  • ú[-]p[-]q’ənəx̣ ‘basket’
  • ú[-]p[-]t’łikʰi ‘bow’
  • ú[-]p[-]tsax̣ ‘knife’
  • ú[-]p[-]x̣achi ‘beads, “Indian money”‘

(Note: I don’t include Jargon úpuch ‘buttocks; tail’ here, because it’s not an artifact. Besides, I suspect it of having been borrowed into older Chinookan from Salish…)

Result? If my suggested analysis can be backed up, which will take even more research than I’ve put into it for today’s article, it could then connect úptsax̣ ‘knife’ with the old Chinookan root that we also find in Chinook Jargon’s t’sə́x̣ ‘split; chop’! Thus literally Noun-Instrumental-split, “the tool for splitting”.

What do you think?