Is berdache a naughty Canadian word?

dance to the berdache

“Dance to the Berdache” by George Catlin, 1835-37, Sac & Fox Nation Village (image source: Queer Art History)

George Gibbs’s 1863 dictionary tells us that < bur-dash > is a Chinuk Wawa word….

It’s a rare word in this language (despite some websites now contradicting Gibbs by saying it was “commonly used”), though of course there are those who say it’s 10% of us.

< Bur-dash > receives a translation as ‘hermaphrodite’ from Gibbs:


Bur-dash, n. Can. French, BERDACHE ([personal communication from Alexander Caulfield] Anderson). An hermaphrodite. The reputation of hermaphroditism is not uncommon with Indians, and seems to attach to every malformation of the organs of generations. The word is of very limited use.

Some historical interpretation is in order.

Gibbs, unless this was a strange gap in his overall polymath level of learning, most likely did not intend the biological-science sense of hermaphroditism, a common category for, as Wikipedia states it well,

an[y] organism that has complete or partial reproductive organs and produces gametes normally associated with both male and female sexes. Many taxonomic groups of animals (mostly invertebrates) do not have separate sexes.

Rather, he more likely meant what we’d now call a transvestite, a person who dresses in the customary clothing and accessories of the sex opposite their birth gender, and assumes the relevant gender roles.

We infer this with great confidence from the well-known documented Indigenous transvestism in the frontier era, often associated with shamanic (medicine-person) powers.

  • Lewis and Clark encountered such folks among the Hidatsa nation in modern North Dakota.
  • A Cree-speaking berdache, as the word is usually spelled in English, named Kauxumanupika accompanied fur-trade explorer David Douglas down the Columbia River.
  • I’ve also been told of an Okanagan Salish berdache alive in my lifetime.

Possible further evidence for a non-hermaphrodite interpretation is found in Indigenous languages; a traditional word for ‘hermaphrodite’ in Halq’eméylem (Stó:lõ) in Brent Galloway’s dictionary is accompanied with elders’ commentary that babies born with visibly indeterminate gender were left to die of exposure on a certain mountain.

If typical of the broader region, that practice implies that berdaches would have been much more rarely encountered than they were. So I’m persuaded by the non-biological, transvestite view of berdache.

It presumably also extended to two-spirit gender identity more broadly, as we’ll see. 

This word is also spelled bardache, which appears to be the standardized spelling in current French.

According to a long and marvelously researched entry in the 1941 “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French”, in the 19th century berdache / bredache was a North American French word for a ‘homosexual’, although when applied to animals, it did mean a biological hermaphrodite.

It’s known as an insult from 1789, when a Missourian accused another of being a sacré, foutu berdache (a d**ned, f**king f**got). I gather that it’s an outmoded insult in modern European French.

It has come to mean the similarly negative ‘coward’ in later Missouri French.

All of this is to say, ‘hermaphrodite’ was a conventional euphemism for ‘gay’ in 1800s US speech.

And berdache was a naughty French word on this continent.

Which helps explain why it’s so d**ned f**king hard (pardon my French) to find traces of it when you’re a linguistic researcher.

Historical lexicographers can tell you, we have an unrealistically polite picture of how folks talked in the past, because it was customary to avoid writing down any words that shocked you. Nevertheless, folks persisted in cussing.

Berdache must have been a real shocker, because I haven’t been able to find it in my usual best resources for older Canadian French.

Not in “Le parler populaire des Canadiens français“.

And not in “Anglicismes et canadianismes“.

Nor in the first many dictionaries at Lexilogos.

Neither did I find it in the hundreds of newspapers at Chronicling America. (Well, there were tons of false positives in German-language newspapers!)

I’m not seeing any spelling of it in the Dictionary of Louisiana French either, but that’s less of a surprise, as L.F. often seems to diverge from the rest of North American French.

I found one decent, well, relevant search result in Father Domenech’s 1860 memoir, about the Bardache dance on the northern Great Plains.

All in all, it seems we’re lucky that Gibbs decided to include this little-known word in his Chinuk Wawa dictionary, and that J.F. McDermott went to such lengths to collect old occurrences of it in French.

Together, they help us piece together a bit more about frontier life in the time of early-creolized Chinook Jargon.

What do you think?