‘Deceive’ is a trickster of a word


“Trickster” by Bill Lewis (image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a phrase that’s trickier than it looks…

mamuk-láx̣w-lax̣w ‘to deceive (that is, throw off balance)’ is in the “general lower Columbia” addendum to the main entries in the dictionary published by Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, 2012.

(I’ve added a stress mark where it should predictably go, on the first member of a full-word reduplication.)

The authority that CTGR got this expression from is the Demers / Blanchet / St. Onge 1871 dictionary, which compiles data from the late 1830s Fort Vancouver region. In that book it’s spelled < laիlaի >, with the unique “broken-legged H” that those authors invented.

A few things have come to my attention to cause me to think further about this expression.

  1. I happened to notice that the parenthetical comment in the definition above is not present in the 1871 book. So it’s an explanatory addition by the CTGR lexicographers, meant to cross-reference the word láx̣(w) ‘tipped, lopsided, leaning’ in the main body of their dictionary. Demers et al. don’t claim that connection.
  2. I realized that George Gibbs’s 1863 dictionary has the word written a bit differently, as < la-láh >, with its meaning given as ‘to cheat, fool, to practise jokes’. He gives it an etymology in Chinookan, the undefined word < lakhwola >.
  3. And I came across a related word in Franz Boas’s 1894 collection of “Chinook Texts”. There, on page 199, is anáƛ̓[-]lálax̣ ‘deceive’, which is (or includes) an ideophone (what he calls an “attribute complement”), because it’s accompanied by a separate ‘do’-verb that carries all the inflection.


  • #2 & #3 draw no overt connection with ‘tipped’.
  • #2 & #3 agree in showing the word as not reduplicated. Gibbs had a good phonetic ear, so we might expect a spelling like *< lakh-lakh > from him if he knew the word as a reduplicated syllable…
  • #1’s representation of the word as reduplicated might conceivably be inaccurate, or an accurate notation of how the French priests uniquely said the word. It says a lot to me that Father St. Onge’s own large manuscript dictionary (1892) only gives the non-reduplicated form < lalaի >, which he defines as ‘deceit, trick, wile’.

The story’s not so simple, though! 🙂

“Chinook Texts” also shows us quite a few occurrences of a Lower Chinookan ideophone, láx̣lax̣ ‘deceive’ (pages 65, 66, 107, 108, 130, 186).

(Hmm, maybe the single case of [-]lálax̣ is just a typographical error?! Except that we have independent good documentation of that root shape.)

Boas’s “Illustrative Sketch” of the same language interprets láx̣lax̣ ‘to rock; to deceive’ as a reduplication of láx̣ ‘sideways; afternoon; to miss’.

(It seems Boas was not so great at noticing lip-rounding in the syllable-final fricatives /xʷ/ and /x̣ʷ/, even though he usually perceived the similarly labialized stops /kʷ/, /qʷ/, etc.)

There, how’s that for a realistically messy sample of language?

I do think it’s a believable picture. Languages do involve a bit of chaos. My takeaway is that there were 2 pronunciations of Chinuk Wawa ‘deceive’, with different histories behind each.

One of them was a run-of-the-mill repeated ideophone, quite a common Chinookan-language structure.

The other, shorter by one phoneme, may have developed from that form. Perhaps it’s a development largely endogenous to Chinuk Wawa.

What do you think?