Of tumtums and tom-toms, and 2 kinds of Indians

Hayu masi to reader Heath Daniel Billingsley, who sent me a link to a really great article…


(Image credit: Archives.gov)

It’s about the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) Indian Division, a 1930s-era employment project — the original Green New Deal. 

Heath was curious if the title of the “Tom Tom Echoes” newsletter pictured in the article has anything to do with Chinuk Wawa’s tə́mtəm ‘heart’, sometimes connected with the thump of a heartbeat. 

I figure the “tom tom” here was one of those old words stereotypically applied to Native people by Settler Americans — along with “squaw”, “papoose”, and “ugh”. 

But just claiming a lack of connection with tə́mtəm is kind of a weak statement. So I got curious just what the etymology of “tom-tom” is.

The highly reputable, linguist-run site EtymOnline reports, to my surprise, that “tom-tom” was borrowed circa 1690 from Hindi. That’s a language of India! 

I trust EtymOnline’s judgment, although there are bound to be plenty of similar-sounding but unrelated words around the world. 

There’s a chance resemblance, for example, between the other meaning of Chinook Jargon’s tə́mtəm as ‘think’ and tomtom ‘smart, intelligent; clever, brilliant; wise’ in Chamorro, the native Austronesian language of Guam and the Marianas Islands. 

At any rate, a chance question from a reader has led to yet another odd connection between the people of India and the “Indians” of the Americas.

What do you think?