On whim

tree wrestling

Tree wrestling? (Image source: Botched Spot)

Frontier-era Chinuk Wawa < whim > ‘fall’ is from SW WA Salish, where it doesn’t mean ‘fall’!

More like ‘fell’, as in ‘to cut down trees’. Samuel V. Johnson’s 1978 dissertation sets that sometimes-missed detail right. To the disappointment of many a Chinook Jargon learner, since there are so few ways to express ‘fall down’ in most CJ dialects.

(BC CJ is blessed to have a robustly documented word for that, spelled foldawn in Chinuk Pipa writing around Kamloops.)

Never mind that Edward Harper Thomas in 1935 decided < whim > was from the “Nootka” language, i.e. Nuučaan̓uł. My reference sources show no remotely similar word there.

Nor that the earliest authority to mention the word, George Gibbs, said in 1863 that Benjamin F. Shaw told him it’s from Wasco (Kiksht Upper Chinookan). I find no match for it in any Chinookan language, even though it “ought” to be there. < Whim > is a very good candidate to be one of the Chinookan “attribute complements” (ideophones; onomatopoeias) — it even has a final “M”, like so many of the ones listed by Franz Boas that refer to noises. Yet the word just isn’t turning up for me there, and neither does it when I search through texts in four Chinookan languages for occurrences of ‘cut down’, ‘fallen’, ‘felled’, etc.

Every later mention of < whim > in Chinook Jargon stems from Gibbs’ report of it, where, by the way, he says it was “of local use only”.

Which implied he was claiming it by hearsay to be used only among the Chinookans upriver on the Columbia.

Which, if he really meant it, would be weird.

This exact Middle-voice form is Salish for sure (this fact is a new discovery).

It’s just not directly documented in any of those languages of the old Chinuk Wawa homeland.

The root of it, xʷíy ‘to cut’, is abundantly known, and xʷíy-m should mean approximately ‘to cut things’ — presumably trees.

It’s found, for example, in Quinault. The same root, if not the same inflected form of it, is known in Upper and Lower Chehalis, where it helps form a word for ‘knife’. It may even be at the heart of (Lower) Cowlitz ‘stingy’, since that seems like a concept just waiting to be expressed by metaphors. (See “Needle-Hearted Coeur d’Alenes, a Native Metaphor?“.)

If we had to place our money on a guess, I’d advise Lower Chehalis as the probable precise source. The vast majority of Salish words in Chinuk Wawa come from L. Cheh., for many reasons that I’ve often outlined on this site.

A second-best guess would be Lower Cowlitz, spoken near that important crossroads, Fort Vancouver. But the evidence for this word is scantiest in that language, and we have few indications of L. Cowl. having contributed much vocabulary to the early Jargon.

In any case, the evidence makes this < whim > look as if it’s yet another word of the early-creolized Chinuk Wawa of the Columbia River.

< Whim > has two documented associations in the Chinuk Wawa documentation.

One is with timber cutting, in the phrases < whim stick > ‘a fallen tree’ and < mamook whim okook stick > ‘fell that tree’.

The other is, believe it or not, with sports! We’re told by Gibbs that its verbal form (evidently the Causative < mamook whim > ) also means ‘to throw, in wrestling’. Okay, I guess you can also use it to refer to fighting, so that’d make this a legit Chinuk Wawa expression  🙂

Kind of fun to unravel such a longstanding mystery of the Jargon. Thanks for reading!

What have you learned?
What do you think?