Piu-piu ‘skunk’ from Canadian French? or Indigenous languages? or English?

coast salish skunk mark gauti

Coast Salish skunk by Mark Gauti (image source: Redbubble)

Among the varied Chinuk Wawa expressions for a ‘skunk’,* George Gibbs 1863:39 informs us of < piu-piu >.

Here’s what he suggests about who dealt it:


Checking on that idea, I do find a Canadian French idiom puer au nez [de quelqu’un] ‘repulse; be distasteful’. Example:

Alors, ça ne me prendra pas 10 minutes pour vous dire que la TVH me pue au nez et elle pue au nez de la majorité des gens du Nouveau-Brunswick et de l’Atlantique.

‘So I do not have to take 10 minutes to tell you that the GST stinks for me and it stinks for the majority of the people in New Brunswick and the Atlantic region.’

But I’m not seeing evidence for a hypothetical interjection *pue-pue! (Or maybe it’s to be thought of as a French babytalkish reduplication, such as we suspect is behind Jargon bibi ‘kiss’.)

In the spelling pupu, a homonym is an obsolete French word for a certain songbird. Not connected with ‘skunk’.

A relevant question —

Would (Canadian/Métis) French < u >, which you know is the same sound as German < ü >, really have come out as /iu/ in Chinuk Wawa?

I ask because the CTGR 2012 entry for one word for ‘sugar’ (seen in the following list) contains commentary skeptical about that French sound becoming “U” in Jargon. Compare the following sets, where the underlined parts correspond to French < u >:

  1. < latuk > ‘cap, hat’ in Demers-Blanchet-St Onge 1871 <= la tuque
    leskʰər ‘sugar’ <= le sucre
    ləlupa ‘ribbon’ <= le ruban
    < aktuel > ‘actual’ (sin) in Demers et al. <= actuel
    < Sesu Kli > ‘Jesus Christ’ in Demers et al. <= Jésus-Christ
    lipiskʰw‘biscuit’ <= le biscuit
  2. (la)chúk ‘cap, hat’ <= (la) tuque
  3. láml ‘mule’ <= la mule
    ləsanch‘belt’ <= la ceinture
    pi ‘and; or’ <= puis (random digression: I’m fascinated that a dictionary of Canadianisms lists < pu > for the semantically related standard French plus ‘(any) more; (the) most’; that too would emerge as pi in Jargon…)

(I’m going to register, but ignore, Father Lionnet’s 1853 unique French-influenced spelling of the Indigenous-sourced Jargon word for ‘flea’ — puce in French — as < innépuce >, normally found as inəpʰu. Compare his similarly frenchified < innépou > for ‘louse’ — pou in French.)

Summarizing what the above table shows us:

  • French < u > mostly (Set 1) comes out in Chinuk Wawa as or the corresponding semivowel w. In one word (Set 2), it appears to have palatalized the preceding “T” sound, as if it had been pronounced iu as Gibbs suspects — but by comparing with Michif cheuk / chouk we see this is actually an old Canadian pronunciation, so I feel it’s yet another straightforward CW u, as is its variant Set 1 form latuk.
  • In Set 3 are the few exceptions: three words where a Jargon front unrounded i / e correspond to French < u >, but note that pi is another old Canadian pronunciation. So we just have láml & ləsanchto deal with. It’s conceivable that their unrounded vowels have something to do with the following ‘liquid” consonants, an environment that none of the other words above contain.

So at any rate, I would extrapolate that any supposed French(-Canadian) expression *pue-pue!, which I’ve found no trace of yet in the literature, would wind up as *pu-pu in Jargon.

Well then, could this word for ‘skunk’ come from another of the major parent languages of Jargon?

I combed through Franz Boas’ grammar sketch of Lower Chinookan and through the existing collections of texts in the 4 Chinookan languages, checking words that correspond to ‘stink, stinky, stinks, stinking, stank’ and ‘smell, smelly, smells, smelling, smelled’ (ignoring most occurrences of ‘smelt’ because that’s a Columbia River fish). Nothing resembling < piu-piu > resulted. Neither do any known Chinookan words for ‘skunk’ resemble this word — see my asterisked footnote at the end.

Southwest Washington Salish languages also lack resemblances to this < piu-piu >. ‘Skunk’ is something like smáyan’ or hayíʔ in these languages. (See also the asterisked end note.)

But why couldn’t this word have come from English? Another Jargon interjection / particle / noun, hə́m ‘smell; stink’, has both Indigenous languages and English as possible sources. Plus, the semantics are similar. And the English interjection phew! for stinky things is known in written language of the 1800s, certainly reflecting spoken usage. Here’s the earliest newspaper example I turned up in a quick search:

I’ve also found an 1838 book where phew! is connected with skunks. More recently, it’s come to be written pew or P.U. in America. And here’s an 1858 example of the repeated phew! phew! relating to a skunk.

In my view, the balance of the evidence tilts toward an English-language inspiration for Jargon < piu-piu >.

But I won’t categorically shut French out from consideration. We sometimes do find that genuine French-Canadianisms, hitherto not documented in mainstream scholarship, turn out to best explain some Chinuk Wawa words. A recent example I’ve shown is lakamín. Another is húyhuy. Put in other words, Chinook Jargon research keeps teaching us things we hadn’t known about French in North America.

* Other Chinuk Wawa words for ‘skunk’ include:

  • p’isx̣as from Kathlamet Lower Chinookan / Clackamas & Kiksht Upper Chinookan
  • upʰənpʰən from Shoalwater-Clatsop LC
  • həm-upʰuch (originally Chinookan words, literally ‘stink-butt’, but a compound seemingly endogenous to Chinuk Wawa), the latter reported by the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) as being preserved in Oregon English dialect as “hump puss“!
  • Coming from SW WA Salish, CW historical documentation also shows sq’əmyúwhich seems to be a punning joke meaning ‘little bedbug’ (bedbugs are said by speakers to release a nasty smell)
  • Typical for BC Jargon, a fur buyer’s advertisement in the newspaper Kamloops Wawa included, phonetically, < skank >, a recent English loan, in its list of pelts wanted.

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?