Is “Kehloken” Chinuk Wawa?

I want to direct you to a good read over at MYNorthwest


Know your big birds! (Image credit:

…about a historically important sunken ferry boat in Puget Sound.

It went by various names during its career. The one we’re concerned with today is Kehloken.

That’s reported in Feliks Banel’s well-researched article as follows: 

The “Golden State” became “Kehloken,” which, in Chinook, means some kind of aquatic bird or waterfowl. A few Chinook dictionaries consulted align with contemporary newspaper accounts, with “Kehloken” said, at various times, to mean “swan” or “crane.” It probably does not mean “white dove,” as one old newspaper article said.

This places the Kehloken in the tradition of naming Puget Sound ferries in Jargon.  

I recognized this name on sight as qʰiluq ‘swan’. Seems to me I recall early Shoalwater Bay Settler James G. Swan having been called this in jest, no?

It’s from a Lower Chinookan noun. I remember discussing it on the old-school CHINOOK listserve with ethnolinguist Dell Hymes. 

It doesn’t definitely mean anything other than ‘swan’, as far as I know. I’m going to shoot that “white dove” down right away.

JK Gill’s often-reprinted popular dictionary is a source for the idea that it applies to another long-necked bird associated with the water, the ‘crane’ / heron. A more reliable term for ‘cranes’ is from A.N. Armstrong’s tiny and obscure vocabulary (1857): < high-ess cul-la-cul-la > (háyásh kə́ləkələ, literally ‘big bird’). 

Evidence suggests that this word qʰiluq was neither very widely used nor poorly known, though George Gibbs (1863) says it’s “of local use only“. His CW dictionary documents what was essentially Fort Vancouver-area CW, so “local” implies creole usage, and the word indeed shows up in Demers – Blanchet – St. Onge (1871, based on 1839-1840s data) from that same community. The Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary of 2012 also notes it from Bay Center, Washington (Shoalwater Bay) CW. And we know it also from Joel Palmer (1847), Father Lionnet (1853), and Theodore Winthrop (1863). All of these document the same broad lower Columbia River region, the homeland of creolized Chinuk Wawa. 

The variant < kehloken > is one that I’m not finding in the old classic CW dictionaries, except as a variant spelling in JK Gill. If you’ve hung around my website much, you may be aware that I’ve been known to invoke Lower Chehalis Salish influence sometimes, to explain final “N” sounds on some CW words. Some of those can be explained as the Lo Ch “Instrument/Tool” suffix, and some can be seen as 3rd person verb endings. Neither of those would make sense here, however. 

Instead, I’m going to get real serious here, and bet you dollars to donuts that this spelling can be traced back to Gibbs’s entry:

kehloken gibbs

Gibbs 1863:8

“kehloke (n.)”!!!!

Someone involved in compiling JK Gill’s dictionary misread Gibbs’s indication that < keh-loke > is a noun…which led them to create an entry < kah-lokenfor ‘swan’, separate from an entry (which would otherwise have merely been a second sense for the same Jargon word) < ke-lok >


That’s right up there with confusing “Gibbs” (a very careful lexicographer) for “Gill”, two very different animals indeed. 

And this wound up being the official Washington state name of a ferry boat, which in turn lent credence to the story that < kehloken > is an actual Jargon word. 

It just goes to show that once you put something into writing, it takes on a life of its own.

What do you think?