Tenino need not be ticklish…because it didn’t exist!

tenino wooden money

Don’t take any Tenino wooden nickels! (image credit: Wikimedia)

I’m trying to tease this out.

And yes, I realize I’ve somehow wound up writing about private parts a lot lately. But as with all language documentation (“dictionaries”, for short), Chinuk Wawa’s touchy vocabulary has left a lot to the imagination.

The name < Tenino > for a Sahaptian-speaking Indigenous group of the Warm Springs, Oregon area, and for a town in the Chehalis, Washington area, has long been a mystery.

The tribe came first. Sources agree on that. Here’s an ethnography of them. The Dalles Tenino, i.e. Tináynułapam, i.e. ‘people of [the village called] tináynu‘, are right there on paper as a party to the 1855 Treaty with the Tribes of Middle Oregon. (“Alexis and Talkish, chiefs of the Tenino band of Walla-Wallas” is the earliest occurrence I’m finding of any spelling of the word.) “Tenino [Oregon] was a small fishing village located opposite the Upper Chinookan village of Spearfish [Washington]”, according to page 392 of the E. Hunn & D. French article on “Western Columbia River Sahaptins” in the “Plateau” volume (#12) of the Handbook of North American Indians. No meaning for Tenino is mentioned. Mysterious.

The next thing we know, in 1861 a steamboat is operating near that village and named for it:

tenino 03

— from the Olympia (Washington Territory) Washington Standard, April 13, 1861, page 2, column 5

Then in the early 1870s, things get even less clear. A small town quite a ways away in western Washington, originally called “Coal Bank” by its settlers, changed its name to “Tenino” in 1872. This shift was apparently correlated with, if not caused by, the coming of a railroad branch line.

Well, now, “Chicago” actually means ‘wild onions’, and I haven’t found evidence that “Tenino” was either in the Jargon by then (read below) or was a local Salish place name (it appears to be an impossible Upper Chehalis word).

Meany’s story rings more true for me, in that “1090” is similar to other temporary place names known to us from the rail-building era. In Kamloops-area Chinuk Wawa up in British Columbia, we know “Camp 16”. Some logging camps, often transient by their nature, had similar names.

Now here’s the rub. Nowhere in the frontier-era original documentation of Chinook Jargon do I find evidence that a word < tenino > existed. I clearly recall learning the word from Edward Harper Thomas’s later (1935) popular compendium of Jargon. Where he got it is less clear. John Kaye Gill’s dictionary, in its 1909 fifteenth edition, is the earliest occurrence I know, and it seems to have supplied McArthur (below) with his authority:

The relationship between meanings #1&2, on the one hand, and #3 on the other, of < ta-niʹ-no >, seems awfully metaphorical. The fact that I haven’t come across any similar imagery in Pacific Northwest languages makes it seem suspect.

Fact is, this sounds more like a Euro-American settler concept. Just as we have places that such people called “Squaw Tits” and “Cock Rock” out here, it’s easy to picture local Whites joking that the utterly newfangled name “1090” was “an old Indian word for _____”, riffing on the fairly well-known Oregon name “Tenino”. The locals are known for their sense of humor, having issued wooden money during the Great Depression and later outlawing shaving.

Not to mention that all this about “Tenino” being Chinook Jargon, and having any particular meaning at all, remains totally unproven. You’ve already noticed that it didn’t appear in Gill’s dictionary until a generation after the railroad-junction town was named. (The Wikipedia article on the town makes a number of dubious claims involving Chinuk Wawa; I haven’t been able to substantiate them.)

No coincidence at all, I reckon, that the naughty stories about the town’s name didn’t make it into print until that same post-frontier era, after 1900.

If all of my scholarly tallying of linguistic archaeological facts seems like mere beating around the bush, I’ll come out and say this:

I think < tenino > is an example of a fictitious Chinook Jargon word. It never existed.

What do you think?
Kahta mika tumtum?