‘Fathom’ from ‘rope’ — an Indigenous metaphor

The early CW measure word íɬana ‘fathom; yard’ has been shown in the superb Grand Ronde dictionary to come from Chinookan…

nootkan dentalia

(Image credit: chaz.org)

…Today I just want to make a very small addition to what we know of its etymology.

In the GR 2012 dictionary, an etymological connection is drawn with Kathlamet (which is Lower Chinookan) and Upper Chinookan noun stems:

  • -ɬana ‘string’
  • -nxa ‘fathom’ (a measurement of the length of one’s outstretched arms, common in cultures around the world)

Those appear to be distinct roots, with no obvious relation to one another, but Kathlamet has at least one occurrence that looks like both together: í-ɬanxa ‘one fathom long’. Shoalwater-Clatsop, I’d add, has i-ánxa-ma ‘a fathom to each’, and (with yet another similar root shape) ɬ-áyana ‘fathoms’, both with explicit reference to dentalia. 

This appears to support the íɬana entry in the GR dictionary, in associating the traditional Native measurement of wealth in fathoms with strung-together dentalium (tusk) shells. 

It turns out that also in Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan, which I understand as the main source of Chinuk Wawa’s Chinookan content, there’s another likely cognate form:

  • < e’Lan> ́́(í-ɬan) ‘rope’ (Boas, Chinook Texts 1894:51, 201, 202; in possessed form on 227)

This variant of -ɬana exactly matches George Gibbs’s 1863 Chinuk Wawa < it’-lan / it’h-lan > ‘a fathom’, noted by the GR dictionary as an alternate form. 

The translation ‘rope’ for í-ɬan is of interest. This is not the only word in Shoalwater-Clatsop translated as ‘rope’; there’s also the Lower Chinookan word that gave us early CW ɬipʰayt ‘line, thread, string, twine’: 

  • tə́-pait ‘rope’ (1894:118; also in possessed form on 96, 153)

A third word for ‘rope’ occurs:

  • ú-pšam ‘rope’ (1894:216)

These 3 words obviously were considered by Chinookans as different kinds of twined cabling. All were translated by speaker Q’lti for Boas’s benefit into Chinuk Wawa (their shared language) as the generic term lúp ‘rope; string; cord; cable’. (This can also serve for ‘wire; chain’.) There simply weren’t any specific CW words for varieties of lúp. CW ‘thread’, and by inference finer gauges of rope, is the above-mentioned ɬipʰayt, or, from Coast Salish, x̣wíləm, or later at Grand Ronde, lifil from French.  Non-woven stringlike things such as sinew employed in sewing have their own words, e.g. ushkʰələx̣ ‘sinew’). 

We’re still left with some puzzlement as to the what distinguishes the other 2 kinds of lup in Lower Chinookan. But reading through the “Chinook Texts”, I see some clues: 

  • Apparently the thinnest gauge and perhaps shortest: tə́-pait is what you tie on at each of several spots on a long salmon net (a trawling net?) so that several people can hold on during fishing. Bluejay ties up a captive with one. In another tale, “a stone and its rope (tə́-pait)” (like a net- or canoe-anchor I suppose) appears to be a metaphor for the stomach and intestines (or throat?) of waterfowl caught by a hunter.
  • Perhaps medium gauge, generic rope, which may have been customarily measured by the fathom: an -ɬan is removed by a shaman from a patient’s body along with 5 sicknesses; one is tied to Robin’s blanket in a story; and this general root form is the one that’s found with mentions of Indian money shells. This kind of rope also was tied to wooden birds, i.e. traditional net floats.
  • Maybe the thickest gauge and/or longest length: an ú-pšam is to be exchanged for a ground-hog (actually mountain beaver) blanket; I take the latter as having been valuable, as they were traded to tribes far away who also borrowed the Chinookan word “sewellel” for them. 

What’s fairly clear is that íɬan(a) ‘fathom / yard’ in CW is an Indigenous metaphor, a use of ‘rope’ as the unit of length by which it was conventionally measured.

In support of this conclusion: We can also see in “Chinook Texts” that there are some purely measurement words: a ‘span’ (I take this as a fathom; it’s š-iá-kučk for ‘two spans’) and  šyíq́ma for ‘half a fathom’ (I take this as a yard). At any rate, these two don’t have any obvious meanings besides measurements. So I do see íɬan(a) and its variants as having originally meant ‘a kind of rope’, later taking on a sense of measurement. 

What do you think?