Cheechako entered English via the Klondike

Other Chinuk Wawa words entered English earlier, usually in Oregon and Washington, but “cheechako” can technically be called a Canadianism…

Take it from, for example, the entry on this word (which I, born in Alaska, grew up hearing) that’s in the phenomenal Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) : 

cheechako dare


cheechako n Usu |čiˈčɑko, čiˈčɔko| For var spp, see quots [Chinook Jargon] AK, Pacific NW

A newcomer, tenderfoot.

1897 Chicago Rec. (IL) 2 Mar 4/4 AK, Many a “Chechaco” (tenderfoot) on his way to the mines, with a pack on his back, has thrown down everything and struck back for town . . cursing the country and its mosquitoes. 1900 Spurr Through Yukon Gold Diggings 51 (Tabbert Alaskan Engl.), The veteran miner in Alaska is a splendid, open-hearted, generous fellow; the newcomer, or “chicharko,” is a thing to be avoided. 1901 Pall Mall Mag. 23.56 cwAK, ‘Nome is a good camp, but too many cheechakers’, that is ‘tender feet’, new comers. 1902 Clark Roadhouse Tales 112, He thoroughly prospected the claim and found there was no gold only in this one place, so he cleaned up nearly all the corner, and then laid for a “che-choker” to buy the claim. He soon found his man. 1904 (1969) Robins Magnetic North 271 AK, It is curious to see how soon travellers get past that first cheechalko feeling that it is a little ‘nervy’ . . to walk into another man’s house uninvited. 1905 (1966) London White Fang 202 AK, The men who came . . were newcomers. They were known as chechaquos. . . They made their bread with baking powder. This was the invidious distinction between them and the Sour-doughs. 1933 Marshall Arctic Village 355, You help him poor man, help him cheechawker. 1939 Franck Lure of AK 118, Sourdoughs and Cheechakoes (“cheechalker” is the way Alaska really pronounces its word for tenderfoot) mingle freely in the streets of Fairbanks. 1939 FWP Guide Alaska xl, Chechakho “just arrived,” hence, tenderfoot (Chinook). 1943 Brandt AK Bird Trails 24 (as of 1924), This was another hard run for the cheechockar (tenderfoot). 1944 Williamson Far North 46 AK, At Cook Inlet you might be on Monday morning a mere cheechakho, as a tenderfoot was called. 1955 U.S. Arctic Info. Center Gloss., Cheechako, chechako, cheechaco. . . A term for a newcomer, derived from Northwest Coast Indian words meaning ‘to come lately.’ 1958 McCulloch Woods Words Pacific NW, Cheechako—A greenhorn. 1962 Salisbury Quoth the Raven 48 seAK (as of 1920s), Bill Gardner was out after deer, or to show the checacho how to hunt for deer. 1966–68 DARE (Qu. HH2, . . A citified person) Inf AK5, [ˌčiˈčɑko]; AK8, In Alaska a newcomer is a [čiˈčɔko] (not necessarily derisory); (Qu. HH15, A very inexperienced person) Inf AK5, Cheechako; (Qu. HH31, Somebody who is not from your community, and doesn’t belong) Inf WA16, Cheechako [ˌčiˈčɑko].

Those example quotations are strongly associated with, first, the Klondike and Alaskan gold rushes, which were staged mostly via Southeast Alaska ports, and then with Alaska generally.

Notice the wide variation in spellings among the earlier quotes, showing that the word was still new. We don’t seem to find this expression borrowed into English as a noun in more southerly regions or earlier times. By mid-20th century, perhaps influenced by the popularity of Jack London’s writings, it looks like the word had gotten standardized to the now-familiar “cheechako“.

A note on the etymology of cheechako, with a couple of points that have not been addressed by previous researchers:

It’s a grammatical CW phrase, chxí cháku, literally ‘RECENT.PAST come(.here)’. That’s a verb phrase in CW. I can see how it was able to leap over to English nounhood, though. If you place this phrase right after a CW noun such as mán ‘man; person’ or tílixam ‘person; people’ like this…

  • mán chxí cháku
  • tílixam chxí cháku

…you have grammatically correct CW relative-clause expressions, respectively ‘a man who just came here’ and ‘a person/people who just came here’.

I find it easy to imagine that in the situation of those gold rushes, which were demographically dominated by English-speaking White American males, such a noun expression got clipped down to the simpler “cheechako” — and treated as a single word.

Here’s one of the earliest Canadian newspaper occurrences of the word:

cheechako 1

— from the Greenwood (BC) Boundary Creek Times of October 29, 1898, page 8, column 2

That’s all I want to say today, but I can leave you with a link to a neat little post-frontier doggerel poem that uses this word, in the spelling chechako.

What do you think?