Is Chinuk Wawa’s “dago” Spanish, or Salish?

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(Image credit: Pinterest)

There’s a fairly rare word of Chinook Jargon that’s pretty much known only from James G. Swan’s mid-1850s stay on Shoalwater Bay, Washington. Swan’s 1857 book “The Northwest Coast” presents the word < da-go > (‘gnats or musquitoes’ [sic]).

Note that fellow Jargon expert George Gibbs, who was nearby, working out of Fort Vancouver, instead has < mél-a-kwa > / < mál-a-kwa> from Canadian French maringouin in his 1863 dictionary. Gibbs only has that synonym secondhand from Alexander Caulfield Anderson, which might mean it was not in G.G.’s own active knowledge of CJ, though < mél-a-kwa > is the most commonly seen word for mosquitoes in CJ dictionaries, from at least as early as Father Modeste Demers’ late 1830s Fort Vancouver-area word list, published in 1871. (Incidentally, did you notice how that word’s got no French definite article on it? Quick, how many Chinook Jargon nouns can you list that don’t start with “L”?)

British Columbia Chinook Jargon, a somewhat later dialect with plenty of unique traits, consistently has the newer loan, from English, < moskito >! (The community of Malakwa, BC, was named pretty late, and probably from a published CJ dictionary.)

Anyhow, in a further development and probably taken from Swan’s vocabulary list, we see in Gill 1909 < dāʹ-go > (‘gnats (“No-see-’em[“])’.

And then, probably from Gill, in E.H. Thomas 1935 we get < dago > ‘gnats’ with a synonym < lemus > from French la mouche / les mouches ‘the fly / the flies’. (Which traces back at least as far as Demers. Tangentially, mouche is translated as < klakla > in Father Lionnet’s vocabulary published in 1853 — that’s the normal Jargon word for ‘bird’!)

Is < dago > from the spoken English ethnic epithet for people of Latin blood? In 19th-century American publications, “dagos” (from the Spanish personal name Diego (James)) were stereotypically associated with a propensity for knife-fighting, so we can imagine some White speaker of Jargon, which is already rife with slangy Anglophone racial slurs, calling biting gnats and mosquitoes such a name.

But I suggest the resemblance to the English word is totally coincidental.

We only need to turn to Southwest Washington Salish languages for proof.

Cowlitz has 2 words said to mean ‘mosquito’, neither resembling < dago >. In a further display of the confusion among these small flying bugs, a word recorded by Horatio Hale circa 1841 is < manik-al-i’txlin >, pretty clearly ‘shits on food’ and therefore more likely ‘a fly’. The other is ps-áyq, literally something like ‘monster-legs’. No words for ‘gnat’ seem to be known. So we haven’t yet found any evidence for my claim.

But now look at Upper Chehalis. This language has even more words glossed as ‘mosquito’. Three are dissimilar to < dago >, including a relative of ‘monster-legs’ (psʔáiq), an apparent ‘sting-nose’ (c’ə́č-qs), and one (p’ačé:w-qs) that I can’t yet analyze. But there’s also one word fairly similar to < dago >, < tēʹqᵘ > in old-fashioned phonetics, that I’m going to show you is a really great match. Read on.

Quinault, for its only ‘mosquito’ term known to me, has a version of that last word as well, t’ík’ʷ. I take the Upper Chehalis version, this one, and the following in Lower Chehalis to be identical words.

Lower Chehalis, too, has more than one word for ‘mosquito’, such as William F. Tolmie’s 1884 < opunitsh >. (That word is possibly native Salish ʔúpa-nəč ~’eats buttocks’; interestingly, Franz Boas reports that neighboring but unrelated Shoalwater Lower Chinookan has ‘mosquito’ as the very similar ú-p’unat’səkt’sək, and some kind of borrowing back & forth is likely. The t’sək portion strongly resembles Salish ~’sting’ as we saw in Upper Chehalis.)

But this insect is instead almost always called t’ík’ʷ by Lower Chehalis speakers, with the literal meaning ‘biter’ being volunteered by them. (The basic form of the root for ‘bite’ is t’ə́k’ʷ; when we find a schwa vowel shifting to — frequently pronounced [é] — in these languages, I tend to analyze it as an ‘expressive’ form showing strong emotion.) The earliest known person to write this word down as a Lower Chehalis expression was Rev. Myron Eells (himself of Chinuk Wawa fame), with his < teʹ-ko > around 1880. Franz Boas re-elicited the word, probably from Charles Cultee, in 1890 or so, as < ťēʹǩʾ>. In both instances here, as in Upper Chehalis, we can take note of the carefully indicated vowel pronunciation [e] as in English “long A”, as in “dago”.

Whichever specific SW Washington Salish language it came from — and I think it’s again Lower Chehalis donating to Chinuk Wawa, since we only definitely know < dago > from Shoalwater Bay — I think we’ve now found its source.

In case you’re thinking the spelling < dago > is kind of odd and not very Indigenous…

James Swan isn’t the only Anglophone writer to come up with strategies like < D > and < G > for Native sounds, even though SW WA Salish has virtually no voiced B’s, D’s, etc. I think of the writer who noted Lower Chehalis qə́nš ‘mouth’ as < clunge >! We can recall here the common spelling < tzum > for Chinuk Wawa’s t’sə́m ‘write; mark’ in old publications. Myron Eells wrote a number of Lower Chehalis words in this manner, e.g. < adamfor ʔátm ‘dead’ and < klo-wil-bic > for łəw’ál’məš ‘Indian’.

You might also find the SENĆOŦEN Salish alphabet of the Victoria, BC, area a relevant example. Invented by a native speaker also literate in English, it adapts voiced-consonant symbols as follows: < B > for ejective /p’/, < D > for /t’/, and  < J > for /č’/, not to mention < Z > for /dz/.


SENĆOŦEN alphabet (image credit: Omniglot)

And the < O > at the end of < dago > and of Eells’ < teʹ-ko > is easy to understand as either (1) an attempt to render the lip-rounding (the “ʷ“) at the end of t’ík’ʷ or (2) just possibly these languages’ typical Diminutive suffix -uʔ.

So I think we’ve pretty firmly solved yet another mystery etymology in the Jargon, and yet again it turns out that SW WA Salish played a very big role in “Chinook” early on.

Spanish, as usual, remains a bit player in the story! Despite claims made in the last couple of centuries, we only know a handful or less of Spanish words in Chinuk Wawa, like BC words for ‘mule’.

What do you think?