Furriers, fur slippers, the fur trade, & “píltən” (fuzzy) thinking



Here’s how one newspaper laid out a detailed alternative to the long-accepted “Pelton” explanation (for that, see “Let’s Go Crazy With Chinuk Wawa“) :


They had no “Chinook” word to express the idea of being silly, foolish, crazy. Now there was a French-Canadian called “Pelletier.” The Indians, unable to pronounce the “r,” called him “Pelleten.” This Pelletier unexpectedly lost his mind, and in this state did many silly and foolish things, to the merriment of the astonished natives. This was their chance, and the difficulty to find the word to express the idea of being crazy, silly or foolish was soon settled. It was to be Pelleten or Pelten, the Indian pronunciation of the name of the man himself who had gone crazy; and in that state had, by different foolish and silly acts, exposed himself to the ridicule of everybody.

— from the North Vancouver (BC) Express of January 3, 1908, page 4, columns 2-3

This idea is crazy 🙂 It could only have come from non-Aboriginal, anglophone, literate BC Settlers.

Granted, it’s attractive as a linguistic folk tale, or urban legend in the case of North Vancouver. Because pelletier in French means “furrier”, a person who trades in furs!

The same root word appears, what do you know, in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s traditional motto “pro pelle cutem” — “for the pelt, the skin”, sometimes said to mean “animal skins at the cost of human hide”, i.e. through very hard work.

pro pelle cutem.jpg

But all of this is just as mistaken as the idea that Cinderella’s slippers were made of glass. (You know about this?)

Canadian French is a side gig for me, not my main expertise, but I’m convinced “Pelletier” (and variant spellings of it) has no “R” sound at the end. Everyone I know says [pɛltie].

So, right there, we see that there was a good reason for the supposed unpronounceable final “R”: it wasn’t there in the first place!

(Well, if I remember right, local Spokane history expert Jerome Peltier said [pɛltir]. But that was in the late 20th century, under enormous English influence.)

And anyway, it wasn’t “R” sounds but “L” sounds that got substituted with “N” by Pacific Northwest Indigenous people (since time immemorial, in their own languages). So “Pennetier” would be more believable, lol.

The coup de grace: you won’t find historical evidence of an old-time fur trade employee named Pelletier. I defy you to produce such a guy’s tracks.

I’m sticking with “Judge” Archibald Pelton. He’s suffered enough indignity; let’s not unfairly rob him of his place in history and in Chinuk Wawa!

What have you learned?
Ikta maika chako komtaks?