Is “BUTTE” Chinook Jargon? Proposal to change the name of Mount Rainier

white butte nd

White Butte, NORTH DAKOTA (image credit: Wikipedia)

Cornelius H. Hanford knew Chinuk Wawa well enough to write an operetta using it, but what will you think about his etymology of Mt. Rainier’s Indian name?

Hanford’s testimony “Before the United States Geographic Board” questions Indigenous accounts of the mountain’s name being something like “Tacoma”, “Tacoman”, or in the nasalless languages of Puget Sound, “Tacobad”:


“I have lived in the territory and state of Washington since the year 1854, and so far as I have any knowledge the mountain was known by no other name than Rainier prior to the time of the location of the Northern Pacific terminus on Commencement Bay in 1873; except that in Theodore Winthrop’s book, ‘The Canoe and the Saddle’, that writer originated the name ‘Tacoma’.

“If an Indian ever gave that word or any word having a similarity of sound he probably meant to say ‘Tacope Butte‘, Tacope being a word of the Chinook jargon which means white and butte means hill or mountain. The designation white hill would probably be given by any Indian in lieu of a particular name for any snow-covered mountain.”

— page 21

A problem with this is just that nobody ever documented the word “butte” as being used in the Jargon!

I can see Hanford’s inferential reasoning: “butte” is a French word used in the Pacific Northwest. It must’ve come from fur-trade employees. The had a big influence on Chinuk Wawa. So “butte” must be Chinuk Wawa.

That’s not the craziest idea I ever heard about the Jargon.

I myself have been known to find French words in the PNW and suggest that they’re previously unknown Chinook Jargon expressions. (A word for ‘squash‘ is one.)

The difference, I’d claim, is that “butte” is so well documented already as a very common PNW word, that I feel sure someone would’ve noticed and mentioned any connection it could have with Jargon.

So on these grounds I’m skeptical of Hanford’s etymology.

Besides, “Tacoma(n)” seems to be originally Coast Salish. I’m not aware that anyone’s put forth an etymological explanation of it in that frame of reference, but it occurs primarily in that group of languages, and the shape of it looks like it should be analyzable in CS. As so often happens, proper names are the last things to receive linguists’ serious attention in a language, but I expect progress will be made.

And no geographic feature that’s actually called a “butte” in our region is as large and prominent as a mountain. If anything, the next bigger object than a butte is a mesa:

butte and mesa

Butte and mesa (image source: Science Clarified)

So today’s post is mostly a note to take the word of experts with a grain of salt!

Kahta mika tumtum?
What do you think?