Losing ‘sleep’ up north

In British Columbia, the old word < moosum > (músum) ‘sleep’ fell into disfavor because of its longstanding naughty overtones…

chinook sleep

Chinook sleeping bag 😉 (image credit: Pinterest)

…It also meant ‘to have sex’.

[Today’s article is an expansion of an idea that came out of people’s questions in our Saturday morning online CW sessions. Hayu masi to you guys!]

There’s some kind of historically weird situation that went on in the source languages (southwest Washington Salish), with this verb.

  • Except in Lower Cowlitz, which was spoken closest to the early CW “metropolis” of old Fort Vancouver, mus-m is not clearly the usual word for ‘sleep’ in those languages.
  • In Upper Chehalis, north of that, a root nəx̣ə́s is also found. (That root seems to contain the old suffix for ‘eyes’; see below for a similar connection.)
  • And in Lower Chehalis, down the Columbia from Cowlitz, the latter is the most frequent.
  • Farther northwest, Quinault has more variety, with what looks like an old Salish root ʔit used even more often than nəx̣ə́s.

And the root mus for ‘sleep’ is an unusual recent development in Salish. I’ve previously noted one likely ancient source that it was created from; today I’ll expand the list to two candidates:

  1. More plausibly, Proto-Salish *mus II [i.e. the second of two roots of that form in Aert Kuipers’s 2002 “Salish Etymological Dictionary”], meaning ‘to feel about, touch’, occurring in modern times in Nuxalk (Bella Coola of BC) and in the Interior Salish languages. This would clearly explain the constant naughty overtones of Chinuk Wawa’s musum from earliest times onward; it leaves the connection with ‘sleeping’ unresolved.
  2. Somewhat fancifully, Proto-SW-Washington-Salish *mus ‘eye(s)’ from Proto-Coast-Salish *mʔus ‘face, head’ [Kuipers should’ve included ‘eye’ here], from Proto-Salish *m-, a dummy noun base onto which lexical suffixes could be added, one of which was *-us I ‘face’. What I’m expressing here is an idea that in this little group of languages, *mus perhaps became a verb root meaning something like ‘to do something with your eyes’ (perhaps close them!). Or maybe, at minimum, #2’s uniquely SW WA word for ‘eyes’ influenced #1’s innovative shift of ‘feel’ to ‘sleep’. This derivation would more clearly explain the connection with ‘sleeping’, but any naughty connotations are unclear.

In either of the above cases, the usual Salish “Middle Voice” verb suffix -m got added to a root shaped like mus. The sense of such an inflected form is like ‘to be feeling around for one’s own benefit’, etc.

At this point, this etymological diversion of mine might be making your eyes cross sleepily so that they practically touch each other 🙂

The relevant point today is that músum always gave off the sense of ‘having sex’.

From early CW days — the Fort Vancouver era — we know expressions like kapshwála músum (literally ‘steal(thily) sleep / stealthily have sex’), translated by the priests Blanchet and Demers as ‘commit adultery’.

And there are numerous versions of a Settler folk song that’s all about tənəs-músum ‘(having) a bit of sex’.

So it can’t be a surprise that in the northern dialect, CW’s < moosum > (músum) was commonly replaced with slip — a new and, as usual, more specific borrowing from English ‘sleep’.

When you said slip your meaning was much less likely to be taken wrong!

The Kamloops Wawa newspaper is filled with dozens of instances of slip; maybe hundreds.

Not much musum, though; in all those pages, even ‘hotels’ are referred to as < makmak haws > (mə́kʰmək-háws, literally ‘eating-house’)!

I’ve seen this word slip in other locales in the north.

One memorable documentation of it has a late-frontier Syilx woman in the Okanagan Lake area of BC pronouncing it < schleep >; here’s a citation from a 2004 paper of mine:

[Dr. Paradise from New York, brought to an Indian reserve to assist at a birth:] said, “Tell them to get out.”

Mis-eye-ka Klatawa,” I said. Four left.

“Tell her to lie down,” the doctor ordered.

I told her “Mika Kickwillie copa yowa.

She asked me, “Mica Mamock, Nika Schleep!” (Put me to sleep.) I said, “Nowitka mica mamock.” (Ill put you to sleep.)

So there you have it in a nutshell, the old and always giggle-inducing word for ‘sleep’ got pushed out of polite Jargon-speaking society north of the Columbia.

A proper English word, if you will, stepped in to give us all some rest.

What do you think?
ata maika tomtom?