“Piss plant”, a Canadianism for an introduced species

piss plant

(Image credit: Jorymon.com)

I amused my daughter by pointing out the absurdity of telling Google to “translate dandelion into French” 🙂

“Dandelion” is famously an old French word, literally ‘lion’s tooth‘.

But yes, you’ll find out a new word by Googling — the modern French is pissenlit, literally ‘piss-in-bed’ (wet the bed).

That has to do with the diuretic properties of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) leaf.

You may already have know that factoid. It comes in handy in trivia contests.

What you might not’ve realized, because so many juicy (sorry!) words were left out of Chinook Jargon dictionaries, is that


is a word of CJ.

Father St. Onge, OMI’s, 1892 manuscript dictionary of Chinuk Wawa is the exception that proves the rule.

He was not a native English-speaker but a Francophone, and he displayed less squeamishness than his American peers (sorry!) about bodily-function vocabulary.

My claim about a cultural difference there is supported by another priest’s Jargon dictionary; Father Griva, SJ, from Italy, logged (sorry!) terms like shit-lamachin (literally ‘shit-medicine’) for ‘laxative’ in his own manuscript.

And aside from differential deference to scatology, there’s the issue (sorry!) that English-speaking documentors of the Jargon tried to save space by passing (sorry!) over CJ words that their readers would already understand.

Which in itself, quite seriously, goes (sorry!) to prove that lots of our present-day “inappropriate” words were in daily use in the 1800s!

All the further proof you’d need for that point is that this crappy, pissy lingo wound up being incorporated into Chinuk Wawa. Pidgin-creole languages are “street talk”, informal, taking in bits of whatever people are actually saying. Written English in the 1800s may have been puritanical (and Victorian), but in real life, folks were cussing up a storm!

So, when we find pis-tipso (literally ‘piss-plant’) for ‘dandelion’ in St. Onge’s manuscript dictionary, we know it’s the real deal.

It’s clearly based on the French word pissenlit that we mentioned up top.

Every time you’re told a new word of Chinuk Wawa, please ask, HOW did that get into the language?

Besides knowing it would’ve been used in the “street” environment, this includes thinking about WHO brought it into the mix. We said it’s a French word — but for the Jargon, you’d look to Canadian and/or Métis French. North American varieties made their really distinct mark on Jargon, over and over again. Pissenlit is documented as a French-sourced colloquialism in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), for one piece of evidence. I’m not finding much evidence of pissenlit as a particular Canadianism, though.

However, we’re virtually obligated to infer that Chinuk Wawa’s pis-tipso is a loan translation (“calque”) on the French word, as used by the largely illiterate Francophone employees in the Pacific Northwest fur trade. (Anyone who’s offended by my use of “illiterate” can rest assured that I’m referring to documented historical facts. I have no place insulting anybody.)

So in other words, and perhaps to your surprise, the verb pis in Jargon — known to us by the way from a few other sources — isn’t (only) English. (The same goes for some other Jargon words, like “Boston“.) We can update the etymology shown in the Grand Ronde Tribes’ 2012 dictionary to include North American French as a source.

By the way, there are interesting historical implications that emerge from our finding an expression pis-tipso existing in lower Columbia-region Chinook Jargon — perhaps rather early because most French material can be shown to have been contributed by the 1830s era of creolization around Fort Vancouver. A HistoryLink article tells of Catherine Maynard having brought the “first dandelions” to Seattle in 1852, but here we may have found evidence that the plant came to Washington Territory even earlier!

Also of note, I have not been able to find a word for ‘dandelion’ in any of the languages traditionally spoken around Chinuk Wawa’s early homeland of SW Washington / Olympic Peninsula: Chinookan (Shoalwater-Clatsop, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Kiksht); Salish (Lower and Upper Chehalis, Cowlitz Salish, Quinault, Lushootseed, Klallam); Sahaptin (Ichishkiin; or Chimakuan (Quileute). That’s a little disappointing; I was hoping there might be a loan translation of ‘piss plant’ into some of those languages!

Interesting how we keep finding more and more verbal and cultural French influence in Chinuk Wawa…

Qu’est-ce que tu penses de ça?
What do you think?