Discovered: GAMINE is the etymology of lakamín ‘stew; gravy’


(Image source: Youtube)

Among the delights of my years of Chinuk Wawa research is to just read and read … because there’s so much old data that’s never previously been analyzed.

Today I was browsing some used books for sale, and one that told a lot about Pacific Northwest history was titled “People of the Falls“, by the late David H. Chance (Colville, WA: Don’s Printery, 1986, for the Kettle Falls Historical Center).

So I bought it.

Almost instantly I noticed on page 85 (with emphasis added by me):

For 1838, the annual inventory of Fort Colvile farm production listed the following:

9000 lbs. fine flour
1000 lbs. gamine (coarse) flour…

Unless it’s a bizarre redundant use (or misreading) of farine ‘flour’, this gamine must’ve been a French Canadianism, from the speech of the majority of the workforce of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Not that you’d know it from the dictionaries I’ve checked, like my 2004 “little” Larousse Illustré (1,818 pages), my Dictionary of Mississippi Valley French, and my Dictionary of Louisiana French. Gamine is very well-known as a French word, also borrowed into modern English, more or less meaning a ‘tomboy’, an attractively boyish girl or woman. Also, as a generic masculine or feminine noun, it’s a ‘child’. But we’ve never previously found a clue that it would refer to anything non-human!

You see, we’ve been puzzling for a long time over the Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa word lakamín ‘soup, stew, gravy; any cooked food requiring mixture/stirring’.

The origin of that Jargon word has been unknown, and we’ve only been able to make tentative guesses: did it come from a Canadian French expression la commune, meaning ‘the common (pot)’? That suggested etymology has been viewed with great doubt by French speakers who were consulted in the making of the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary.

The frustration was that we couldn’t find any French words that more closely resemble that /kamin/. I’ve literally had dreams, more than once, that I suddenly found an obscure old French word *“la camine” and solved this mystery. (Yes, that is how obsessed I am with Chinook Jargon, lol.)

Today I think we’ve finally got it. Lakamín (note, the other pronunciation of it at Grand Ronde is lagamín with a “G“) seems plausibly traceable to a Canadian la gamine ‘the coarse one; the rough kind’, with the feminine noun farine ‘flour’ left implied as French is able to do (asterisks mark my hypothesizing). What’s implicit is *la farine gamine, which would be a slangy, fun way to talk, as if to say ‘flour with rough manners’.

Modern standard-French dictionaries tell us ‘coarse flour’ is la farine grossière, which is an excellent literal translation.

But it would seem that a common French Canadianism in the era when that language was important in the Pacific NW was the less formal la (farine) gamine.

I’m with the Grand Ronde Dictionary folks in believing this was once a widely known word in our region. They point out lakamin in Southwest Washington Salish, Sahaptin and upriver Chinookan, all with similar meanings; I’ve also found it in Chimakuan (Quileute) defined as ‘dumpling’.

Are any of you good cooks? Is coarse flour used for thickening gravies and stews, and making dumplings, while fine flour is used for baking? Because Chinuk Wawa of course has a very well-known generic word for ‘flour’ (and ‘bread’ & other baked goods, which may answer part of my question!), saplél. There should be some motivation for a separate ‘flour’ word existing in the language…

As we’ve found quite a few times, often the only historical trace of a particular French word in the PNW is as a loan into Native languages. That would seem to be very much the case here, with la gamine extremely hard to find traces of in French-language documents per se.

I believe we have a new discovery here.

What do you think?