Capot and/or capote?

The source of the basic CW word kʰapú ‘(over)coat, jacket’ has been much discussed.Let me point out, kʰapú in Fort Vancouver-era Chinuk Wawa was distinct from kʰút (from English ‘coat(s)’), which meant a woman’s ‘petticoats’ as an undergarment!

Anyways — the Grand Ronde Tribes 2012 dictionary of CW points out the most sensible etymology for kʰapúi.e. the masculine noun (le) capot, pronounced [kapo].

A present-day French dictionary website says capot now means ‘hood’ of a car or ‘cover’ of a computer. I thought it was excellent that that site also generates a chart of each word’s frequency of use through time:



So evidently capot was in peak use from 1760-1764, at a frequency of 1.06, as I checked by mousing over that high point.

I’ve always wished for a way to determine whether kʰapú might have some relationship with a nearly identical French word, the feminine capote ‘hood of a car; greatcoat; condom’ — to give its modern meanings.

I infer that capote & capot were, and perhaps still are, pronunciation variants of each other in mainstream French; do you suppose that’s reasonable of me?

Again we can look to a chart of use through time, for capote:



1748-1776 were the peak years of usage for capote, we’re told based (obviously) on written sources. Its frequency plateaued at 5.7.

Now, the above figures seem to suggest capot was more frequently used, at least in writing, than capote; that’s interesting but the dates are before any known use of Chinuk Wawa.

But when I checked Google Books Ngram Viewer, I found similar and more relevant results:

capot capote

Here we find capote (the red line) peaking circa 1830-1834, with capot (the blue line) remaining comparatively infrequent. Note that I’m ignoring higher peaks that occurred after the relevant Fort Vancouver period (1825-about 1846) in which most French words entered CW.

It’s still not totally clear what this means for the history of CW’s kʰapúbut I take away from this little exercise the broad notion that feminine capote was the more frequent French word for ‘coat’ while the Jargon was taking shape.

Does this imply that the masculine capot implied by the CW pronunciation was an outlier, a French-Canadian provincialism?

Or maybe more plausibly, that in Canada the climate and cultural conditions were distinct, such that overcoats were more of a thing in this hemisphere?

In a 1908 study of a Gaspé Peninsula (Québec) dialect of French, I found this observation:

“Au Canada le capot est principalement le paletot d’automne ou d’hiver. C’est ainsi qu’on dit: capot de chat pour paletot de fourrure, en peau de chat sauvage. Notre capot n’a pas nécessairement de capuchon, et ce n’est pas un manteau. C est une capote, mais pas au sens restreint de capote militaire. Il ne serait pas juste de traduire capot par capote, car la capote ne se met pas, nécessairement, par dessus les autres habits et le sens en est plus restreint que celui de notre capot.”  Comment by Rivard.

(“In Canada the capot ‘hood’ is mainly the fall or winter overcoat. This is why we say: cat capot for fur overcoat, of wild cat skin. Our capot does not necessarily have a hood, and it is not a coat. It is a capote, but not in the restricted sense of an army jacket. It would not be fair to translate capot by capote, because the capote is not put, necessarily, over the other clothes and the meaning is narrower than that of our capot. “)

If the above is representative, capot [kapo] is indeed the normal Canadian word for upper-body outer layers of clothing, and would thus be the expected ancestor of kʰapú

Here’s an almost certainly relevant observation: in McDermott’s “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French”, that is, of frontier French, it’s the word capot that’s singled out as distinctive of the dialect:

“A sort of mackinaw coat of blanket material, topped with a hood for rain or snow.” (Dorrance, 64-65.) The early notion of travelers that the Mississippi Valley French, like the Indians, wore blankets was probably derived from the blanket stuff of the coats.

Laverdure & Allard’s 1983 Michif dictionary exclusively uses kapoo / kapou for ‘coat’. I have a searchable PDF of the book, and I find no traces at all of a *kapot / kapoot / kapout* pronunciation.


Métis in “capotes” hunting buffalo in the Red River area (1822), by Peter Rindisbacher (image source: Wikipedia)

It’s a funny quirk of history that English-speakers usually write of the “Métis capote“!! Is that due to the influence of literary French, maybe?

Elsewhere in North America, Valdman’s “Dictionary of Louisiana French” registers barely a trace of capote, and only for the recent concept of ‘condom’. But it has a substantial entry for capot, ‘coat, overcoat’.

So it seems we can confidently confirm that it’s capot, not capote, that’s the ancestor of kʰapú.

What do you think?