‘Balsam’, Canadian French, Salish, Chinookan, & Chinuk Wawa

minty balsamic

I couldn’t confidently pick out a native mint species from the Pacific Northwest, so here’s a minty halloumi & sundried tomato salad with honey-balsamic spinach! (image credit: Pinterest)

Just a short note here on an ongoing puzzle in Chinook Jargon.

A word qʰəstəkw, spelled < kastik > and translated ‘balsam’, was recorded in Father Modeste Demers’s 1871 CJ dictionary.

I feel sure that generations of English-speaking readers have wondered what ‘balsam’ is. The Grand Ronde Tribes’ 2012 dictionary does a service by observing that this is probably ‘mint’, as the word closely matches local Salish and Chinookan words for native wild mint.

There seems to be a range of opinions among botanists about which ‘mint’ species are indigenous to the PNW; aside from Mentha species, qʰəstəkw seems like it could denote native bergamot, horehound, germander, selfheal, and/or skullcap.

CTGR 2012 notes that Chinook Jargon’s sorta cousin, the Cree-French Michif language has, from Canadian Métis French, li boum / liboum savaezh for ‘wild mint’. That liboum is a pronunciation of French le baume, which is historically developed from (you got it) a now rare word balsame.

Just to add to that claim from another angle, I wanted to share a couple of translations I found at a translation website that are related to balsam, the English word that Demers (1809-1871), a native-born Canadian, must’ve had in mind as the “correct” translation of le baume:

Saveur: Balsamique, intense et persistant.
Taste:Menthol notes, intense and long lasting.

GENRE DE NOTE: Mentholé – balsamique
KIND OF NOTE: Minty scented – balmy

So there you go, an association of ‘balsamic’ with ‘minty’ in French.

Is le baume in the sense of ‘mint’ previously documented as a Canadianism or North-Americanism?

In searching via the website Trésor de la langue française au Québec, I find an example of that:

MENTHA CANADENSIS. (Menthe du Canada, populairement baume). Connue uniquement sous le nom de paparmane. «On fait chécher[*] et on échaude quand un enfant braille». [* Chécher is a folksy pronunciation of sécher ‘to dry’.]

Le nom papermane, de l’anglais (peppermint), répandu dans tout le Québec, ne devrait normalement s’appliquer qu’au Mentha piperita (menthe poivrée), une espèce introduite; mais on ne distingue pas, en général, les différentes espèces de menthe, qui sont employées partout pour la préparation de tisanes, contre la fièvre et le rhume. Bien qu’il en existe une espèce au lac Mistassini, les Indiens de ce territoire ne semblent pas la connaître. Le Glossaire du parler français au Canada ne cite que la forme papermane, mais la prononciation paparmane me semble beaucoup plus fréquente.

(MENTHA CANADENSIS. (Canadian Mint, popularly “baume“). Known uniquely as the paparman. “We dry it and scald when a child bawls.”

The name papermane, from English (peppermint), widespread throughout Quebec, should normally apply only to Mentha piperita (peppermint), an introduced species; but we do not distinguish, in general, the different species of mint, which are used everywhere for the preparation of herbal teas, against fever and colds. Although there is a species at Lake Mistassini, the Indians of this territory do not seem to know it. The Glossary of French Spoken in Canada cites only the papermane form, but the paparman pronunciation seems to me much more frequent.)

— ROUSSEAU, Jacques, 1947, «Ethnobotanique abénakise», dans Les Archives de folklore, t. 2, Montréal, Éditions Fides, p. 145-182.

Similarly, J.F. McDermott’s 1941 “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French” has an entry of related interest, baume des sauvages (literally ‘balm/mint of the Indians), the current scientific name of which I haven’t learned; it’s called “gnafale lilas” and “[G]ynema balsamica” there. (Should that be Gymnema?) Compare this phrase with the previously mentioned Michif liboum savaezh.

The Dictionary of Louisiana French (2010) has nearly the same expression, baume (de) sauvage (lit. ‘Indian balm/mint’), as ‘camphor weed’, a yellow-flowered daisylike plant that we also find here in Washington state. DLF 2010 notes generic baume is ‘mint’, and another particular plant is baume tranquille (lit. ‘calm balm/mint’), ‘species of mint’.

So yes, baume is a typically North American French way to say ‘mint’.

It’s sort of interesting that neither le baume ‘mint; balsam; balm’ nor la menthe ‘mint’ from Canadian French were taken up by Chinuk Wawa. But then again, mint was never a prominent trade item, nor necessarily in much household use around Fort Vancouver.

In any case, Canadian French le baume makes its presence felt indirectly in the Chinook Jargon universe via Blanchet’s translation of the Salish-to-CJ loanword.

íkta máyka chaku-kə́mtəks?
What have you learned?