Hidden discoveries: Extinct animals & creole-pidgin ethnozoology (Part 5)


Bois fort (image credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s one last example. It’s more circumstantial……but I think it too points us to a “new old” Jargon word. Page 21 narrates,

“We rested a day at ‘Boisfort prairie,’ so called by a Canadian settler, the name being a French translation of the Indian name of the oak, which first appears here in going eastward.”

For the prominence of Garry oaks in that local landscape, note the nearby place name Oakville on the (Upper) Chehalis Indian Reservation, and Oak Point on the nearest (75 miles distant!) bank of the Columbia.

The thing is, in the local languages near Boistfort [sic], Washington — Upper Chehalis and Lower Cowlitz, both Salish — ‘oak’ is not bois fort (‘strong wood/tree’).

In those languages, the tree has a name based on a root kʷís-, whose meaning isn’t known.

And in Chinookan, I’m finding forms resembling Shoalwater-Clatsop i-Gábnaš, again a word that we don’t know how to relate to any concept of ‘strong’.

What I’m saying is that none of the nearby languages have a word with any obvious meaning like ‘strong wood’.

Now, we do know from sources such as McDermott’s 1941 “Mississippi Valley French” lexicon that North American French in general used an expression bois fort. 

But there, it meant generally ‘the deep forest; heavy timber’.

So, as a French name for the species ‘oak’, this bois fort would be a new finding.

Let’s keep thinking this through.

The “Reports of Explorations” that I’ve been looking at in this mini-series maintain that local Indigenous people called oaks strong trees.

I infer, then, that the language they were using is Chinuk Wawa.

The local bois fort is then a translation of some CW word for ‘oak’: either

  • (A) the already-known creolized CW word for ‘oak’ q’ə́l-q’əl-stík (literally ‘hard-Distributive.Reduplication-wood = ‘wood that’s hard all the way through’)
  • or (B) a lower Columbia-region Chinuk Wawa phrase skúkum-stík (literally ‘strong-wood’). That phrase is documented, as well as hinted at, in other sources about western Washington history, albeit with apparently a different referent: the Menziesia shrub. (See “Skookum-Wood“.)
  • …(C), that is, both (A) & (B)…

The pivotal detail is the question of whether local French fort could indeed mean the physical consistency ‘hard’.

I’m used to seeing ‘hard’ expressed as French dur, but ‘strong’ as fort. But I can easily imagine a settler understanding skukum as having both meanings, ultimately giving us “bois fort”.

It pays to revisit old sources that you’d thought contained very little relevance to Chinuk Wawa…

And it’s fascinating that we keep finding how strong the Canadian/Métis French influence was in the broad frontier-era lower Columbia River region.

Another example of that is the telling of “Petit Jean” myths in both K’alapuyan and Sahaptin languages…which will continue making appearances in this space.

What do you think?