Early 1850s: ‘Christmas’ & ‘eat crow’ humor on Shoalwater Bay

swan xmas

page 417

James Gilchrist Swan, early pioneer on Shoalwater Bay, Washington Territory (near Astoria), spoke excellent Chinuk Wawa & could repeat a good joke…

… Seen just above is an example of his fine Jargon, the word for ‘Christmas’: <Hy-asʹ Sunday > ~ hayás sánti ‘the big holiday’. (“Che.” = “Chenook (Jargon)”, not to be confused with Swan’s other abbreviation “Che.” = “(Lower) Chehalis (Salish)”!)

Presented in Swan’s 1857 memoir, this phrase is also known to my readers from the 1928 Swinomish Reservation letter of Willie McCluskey.

McCluskey disambiguates for us; since the 1853 Columbian & 1858 A.C. Anderson wordlists say hayás sánti could also mean ‘July 4th’ in US-occupied territories (would it mean ‘Victoria Day’ in BC??), he writes < alup hias Sunday >, literally ‘the biggest holiday’.

The latter speaker also shows us a complete expression for wishing someone a merry Christmas:

< nika tickie spose mika hiyu heehee alup hias Sunday >
 náyka tíki spos máyka hayu-híhi [Ø] íləp-hayás sánti
‘I want for you to have a lot of fun [on] the biggest holiday’.

And that’s my wish to you today.

Here’s a small gift — Swan’s funny, true Christmas story from pioneer-era Shoalwater Bay, plus (after it) my explanation of the joke:

swan xmas 01

swan xmas 02

pages 325-326

I tell my kids the joke explained is not worth telling, but here I go.

Swan’s use of ‘eat crow’ — which many American readers will still recognize as the expression for ‘suffer a humiliation’ — was the latest popular joke at the time. The sudden switch into American dialect/slang English (‘hang me’, ‘hanker’, ‘arter’ for ‘after’) signals the comic mode.

The “Word Histories” website investigated it, and found the first known appearance of ‘eat crow’ in a New York newspaper of 1850, which is just about when James Swan left the East Coast to come out here & bowl us over with his big-city comedy gold.

I have to give props to “the captain” as well. His reply, “[D]on’t condemn crow-meat from this trial”, is a pretty slick pun as well 🙂

qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?