‘Evil’ & ‘pretty’?

pretty evil

(Image credit: Redbubble)

Here I want to expand on a really great remark made by the crew of the 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary of Chinuk Wawa…

For the Jargon word másháchi ‘bad, harmful, terrible; mean’, the GR folks observe that the least-crazy etymology they could find is in Lower Chinookan languages…

…And I say ‘least crazy’ because the corresponding word, in terms of sound, is a Lower Chinookan freestanding word (I think it’s not a particle), found as < masāʹtsīLxmasátsiłx̣ ‘pretty’ in Shoalwater-Clatsop and (one occurrence in) Kathlamet!

What the heck?!

I’ll add a detail here. This masátsiłx̣ refers only to inanimate things, as far as I can see in Charles Cultee’s (collected by Franz Boas) “Chinook Texts” and “Kathlamet Texts”.

Let’s contrast this word with a few other Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan forms I’ve found.

  • the synonym –t’úkti ‘pretty, handsome [referring to humans], also found in Kathlamet Lower Chinookan’
  • and the antonyms
    • q’ax̣tsíłx̣ / qax̣chíłx̣ ‘bad [referring to humans]’
    • and ʹ-q’atx̣ala ʹbad’ referring to any entity

Kathlamet Lower Chinookan has -lkuili and -gašk’ʷl for ‘bad’ [inanimate things], and -čxatma referencing a human.

Kathlamet and Generic Upper Chinookan ‘bad’ is -ámla. I have not found words for ‘handsome / pretty / good-looking’ in Clackamas or Kiksht.

So here are what strike me as important points:

  1. The ancestry of the Jargon’s masháchi is essentially Shoalwater-Clatsop, the Chinookan language of the Columbia River estuary, where people first met seagoing Euro-American traders.
  2. Its pronunciation is evidently altered — simplified — to a degree only known in Jargon in the set of words imported from the northerly Nuučaan’uł (“Nootka”) Jargon by, guess who, Whites.
  3. Its meaning has shifted
    1. from Chinookan (inanimate objects, thus perhaps trade goods?) to Chinuk Wawa (primarily humans),
    2. from Chinookan positive to Chinuk Wawa negative evaluation,
    3. from Chinookan description of external physical appearance to Chinuk Wawa depiction of interior mental state / disposition.

This word has mutated so much, and so strangely, that I incline to put the responsibility on the Whites involved in forming early CW.

Did the newcomers misinterpret Lower Chinookans as cutthroat merchants betraying each other?

Let’s also consider the fascinating Chinookan & Chinuk Wawa habit of assuming a negative spin on the indefinite / relative “WH” question words.

  • For instance, when Victoria Howard, a Grand Ronde elder of Clackamas Upper Chinookan background, told stories in Jargon, her expression “you might see something(íkta) is repeatedly explained as the risk of laying eyes on some harmful sight.
  • And in Chinook Jargon generally, the word qʰáta ‘how’ carries an assumption of ‘somehow being messed-up’, even when you’re using it to ask ‘why’. (There are few clearer ways to ask ‘why’ in Jargon, incidentally.)

So, maybe early Whites picked up on some of the subtleties of Chinookan communication, and inferred that these were people who spoke in ironies…?

They certainly recorded their impressions that the “Chinooks” were quite sharp traders.

Maybe Whites saw Chinooks as jaded people who sometimes said the opposite of what they meant?

What do you think?