Indirect, weak evidence that CW ‘clams’ might be from French

A rather obscure Chinuk Wawa word for ‘clams’ has long stirred comment…

clams label

The state clam of Washington? (Image credit: Washington Farm Bureau)

Folks suppose < lakutchee > /  < la kootche > / < luk-ut-chee > /  < la-kwit-chee > / < la-kutch-ee > to have come from Canadian French la coquille

That idea traces back to George Gibbs’ influential 1863  dictionary. Gibbs places this word as “used chiefly on Puget Sound“, which at the time almost certainly meant (Fort) Nisqually. That whole region is in traditional Salish territory, a fact that I mention for a reason you’ll come to see.

I’d like to add that the plural les coquilles ‘the shells’ is perhaps even more likely as an etymology, on real-world grounds. Clams are like berries (or, for my modern-day readers, potato chips) — you hardly ever deal with just one!

Has anyone wondered out loud whether that was a Canadianism for ‘shellfish’? I guess now someone has! More research is indicated, but let’s not be surprised if it’s awful hard to track down evidence in print of Pacific Northwest usage, which was the speech of a mostly non-literate population.

A different, minority, opinion about the etymology of this word for ‘clams’ recently came to my attention: 

J.K. Gill thought it was a Chinookan neuter-gender noun! 


The genders were all expressed by a primal syllable, of which form some words in the Jargon still are evidences, as: E-lite, a masculine slave (though used indiscriminately in Jargon), E-lahka, E-salth; the prefix E denoting the masculine. A primal o indicated the feminine, as in o- quanax, o-qulakull, and an initial l, which was spoken like a forcible gl, and which was one of the uncanny features of their speech to Europeans and Americans, denoted the neuter, as in l ukutchee, clams; (l) tsuk, water.

— from page [39] of “Gill’s Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon”, 15th edition (Portland, OR: JK Gill Company, 1909)

Now that’s a remarkable clam claim.

No similar word for ‘clam(s)’ shows up in any of the 4 Chinookan languages; apparently no words for clams whatsoever emerge in the published texts of Upper Chinookan (Kiksht and Clackamas).

Also, the Chinookan prefix that Gill’s talking about is not a voiced “L” but the sound /(t)ł/, the voiceless “slurpy L”. And there is no indication in any Jargon source document of such a sound in the word we’re considering today. 

Lastly, let me observe that Gill is presenting an Indigenous etymological idea from somewhere far away from Puget Sound. Chinookan is unrelated to the Salish languages of the Puget Sound area, which had their own, quite different-sounding, words for clam species. 

By presenting such a groundless counterclaim, then, Gill inadvertenly strengthens the idea of a French etymology!

And there were indeed French “servants” of the Hudsons Bay Company at Nisqually and nearby establishments such as Cowlitz Farms. Sometimes we find obviously French-etymology words in Indigenous languages of that area, not previously known to us as Chinuk Wawa vocabulary but almost certainly imported via these workers’ CW. (‘Squash‘ (‘pumpkin’) in Quinault Salish is a good example.)  

So I continue to suspect very strongly that < lakutchee > in CW should be traced back to Canadian/Métis French. We should focus our research efforts there.

What do you think?