Digging into púlali

pool alley

Pool Alley, 1956 (no relation) (image source: The International Arcade Museum)

The origins of Chinuk Wawa púlali ‘dust; powder’ have been argued over for quite some time.

Checking into my past writing and thinking on this, I see that I’ve shown how some folks thought the Molala Indians were the ‘dust’ people. But I guess I haven’t gone into the word’s background before.

This Jargon word is known at least as early as Samuel Parker’s 1838 < polalla > ‘powder’ & Fathers Demers and Blanchet’s 1871 [1838-1839 data] < polale >, as well as in their < polale elehi > ‘sand’, literally ‘powder earth’ / ‘powder place’.

It’s more than once been suggested as coming from (Canadian) French poudrerie ‘blowing snow; gunpowder mill; gunpowder factory’, that is, a word formed from poudre ‘powder’ + -erie ‘place where a certain thing is made; abundance of’.

My late, generous colleague Dr. Barbara P. Harris of UVic published a good scholarly article, “Handsaw or Harlot?” that investigated this idea, among others. I’d like to dedicate the following further study to her memory, with gratitude.

I have many doubts about that etymology:

  • Why isn’t there a definite article la- on the Jargon word, as is almost always the case with noun borrowings from French?
  • Why wouldn’t Jargon just have borrowed (la) poudre and/or English powder for something as integral to daily frontier life as gunpowder, which in fact was usually called just ‘powder’?
  • Why is the “DR” in the middle of the French word not reflected by “DL” or “TL” in Jargon, which is the usual phonological development for such clusters? This is the same problem we ran up against in trying to find a French source of Jargon pʰasáyuks ‘white people; French’.

Well, if it isn’t French, what about Aboriginal languages? George Gibbs in his 1863 dictionary of Jargon declares “The word is certainly neither Chinook nor Chihalis” (Chehalis Salish), but he was not a major expert in either.

So let’s see…


Púlali doesn’t seem to be directly known in Chinookan languages, even though I suspect they’re the best bet for a source.

Here’s what I have been able to find:

  • Shoalwater-Clatsop & Kathlamet (the Lower Chinookan languages) use a noun stem -qamiláləq for ‘sand’.
  • Upper Chinookan:
    • Clackamas has a noun i-txʷdə́li ‘sand’
    • Kiksht/Wishram says i-łGíninua for ‘a cloud of dust’.

No close matches, there, but I do find the following sequences comparable with part of púlali — respectively, /ilálə/, /ə́li/, and /ínin/. (Remember, in Chinookan, “N” and “L” alternate pretty freely with each other.)

And maybe these can be in turn related to the Chinookan stem for ‘earth, dirt, place’ that we know from Jargon íliʔi / ílihi…? See my note 3 below, too.


Could the /pú/ part, then, come from something like Chinuk Wawa’s spúʔuq ‘faded, dusty, grey; ashes, dust’, which comes from Chinookan? (See the 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary for details.) The sound and the meaning both align pretty fairly! Particularly in Lower Chinookan, we would expect a form like (s)puq to alternate with (s)puʔ.

Here I have to add that Southwest Washington Salish has a similar root, making it a possible source for the Jargon spúʔuq — it’s roughly p’áqʷ ‘grey, light color, fade(d)’, as in the traditional subsitute-name (hunting taboo) for ‘deer’ as ‘grey-face’.

Plus, look at this in the nearby Sahaptian languages…

  • In Nez Perce, ‘gunpowder’ is póx̣spox̣s, which uses a totally different root from the concepts ‘powdery’, ‘powder snow’, ‘pound to a powder’, etc.
  • The dictionary of Ichishkíin (Yakama) has puxpúx ‘powder’, cross-referenced to an 1800s form essentially identical to Nez Perce, < porspors > documented by Father Pandosy in his French-influenced writing style.
  • Umatilla has wilapúx̣ ‘blow up dust’ (wila- means the wind is doing it).

Not to mention that languages throughout the Pacific Northwest have similar-sounding words for ‘blow’ (as with Chinuk Wawa p’úx̣ən, from a Salish root p’úx̣(ʷ)), ‘shoot’ a gun (as with CW p’ú), ‘fart’ (as with CW p’úʔ), and so on. ‘Blowing’ is certainly a motion characteristically associated with dust and powder…


Finally, I’ll make note that the -li at the end of the Jargon word might just be connectable with the Chinookan locative adverb suffix -ni/-li that I’ve also written a post about here. Could that suffix be a form of, or related to, ílihi ‘land, soil’ etc.?


Putting all these ideas together, I have a mild preference for an Indigenous etymology of púlali ‘dust, powder’. Maybe it could be understood as approximately pú ‘blow(ing)/dusty’ -la ‘soil’ -li ‘place’? As speculative as this is, I still find more to recommend it than any French suggestions.

What do you think?