A long shot, but worth it: French beaver terminology & ‘rain’

Could old fur-trade French have something roundabout to do with the longstanding mystery of Chinuk Wawa’s word for ‘rain’?

castor gras

(Image credit: Ferme du Castor Gras)

This comes up because I’ve been reading Eric Jay Dolin’s super readable book “Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America“. I love this book because it traces the intercultural fur trade to its very beginnings several centuries ago, giving much more background than the typical studies that I feel are kind of myopic in their focus on mountain men and such. 

Anyhow, Dolin on pages 45-46 tells us that the French called coat beaver — the pelts that were cut into rectangles and stitched into such a garment — castor gras. This literally means ‘fat beaver’. It was a superior product, thus extra valuable, because the friction of being worn for a season next to a Native person’s body had the effect of wearing off the undesired coarser “guard hairs” and thickening the remaining hairs with human perspiration. Castor gras coats were sold at a nice profit by the Indians who had kept warm with them for a year. 

Pelts that had not undergone this kind of clever processing and attracted lower prices were known as castor sec, ‘dry beaver’. 

So, isn’t that an interesting dichotomy? Two opposite terms, ‘fat’ and ‘dry’. 

For what it’s worth, this puts me in mind of one of Chinuk Wawa’s oddities. In CW, I have no idea how various qualities of beaver skins were described. It’s known how to say something is ‘fat’, pʰáł-klís (literally ‘full (of) grease’), and ‘dry’ is tiláy. But we’ve not heard of these terms being applied in Jargon to pelts. 

But here’s this one weird thing. CW’s word for ‘rain’, snás, has a complicated etymological story behind it. I’ve argued that it goes back, at least in part, to Nootka Jargon, the pidginized version of Nuučaan’uł of the West Coast of Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. In NJ I think nas would’ve meant ‘weather’.

And I suspect that that word’s mysterious eventual mutation into snas was due, at least in part, to the influence of Salish (s-)nas ‘fat; greasy’, with some connotation of splattering droplets that’s carried in common with precipitation.

Is that an Indigenous metaphor? Further research is needed there. Perhaps the French fur-trade terminology is a clue. Could a non-dry, greasy beaver pelt have been traditionally considered wet, like rain? 

I emphasize that I’m only speculating here. And my speculation is quite a reach. But in the interest of pursuing all possible avenues of documenting Chinook Jargon’s history, I’m putting this little idea on the record.

Your reactions are invited, as always!

qʰáta mayka témtəm?
What do you think?