Linguistic archaeology: On the vintage of “skookum house”

At this stage in Chinuk Wawa research, we often have a pretty clear idea of the first known historical occurrence of individual “words” of CW.


A confusing recent name for a place that is nothing of the kind (image credit:

By “words” I really mean “morphemes” there.

Other linguists, having (different) theoretical views, would say I mean “lexemes”, but they’re wrong 🙂

Because we can usefully subdivide the units traditionally written as separate “words” in Jargon into at least 2 levels of language structure: 

  • Smaller, dependent units that function as inflectional affixes (e.g. tənəs- ‘Diminutive’ and mamuk-/munk- ‘Causative’).
  • Independent units that can always be used and pronounced all by themselves, that is, roots (e.g. mán ‘man, men’, kúri/kúli ‘to run; travel’).

At all events, Jargon scholars have pretty much squared away the histories of this language’s individual morphemes. 

But, what Chinuk Wawa documentation, other than the wonderful 2021 Grand Ronde dictionary, has mostly done a very poor job of, is tracking the histories of:

  • Larger, more complex units such as inflected phrases, compound nouns, and so forth (e.g. mamuk-ískam ‘to collect, harvest, gather’, kʰə́ltəs-kúli ‘to gallivant, get up to no good, hang around town’). 

And so that’s a whole lot of what I as a linguist wind up adding to CW research — the backgrounds of phrases, idioms, metaphors, and so on in Jargon. 

Regarding an example of this type, the question came up the other day, how old is “skookum house“, the term for ‘prison, jail’?

Depending on the answer that we find, this might tell us something neat in terms of linguistic archaeology. 

To my surprise, the very earliest I’ve found this Jargon expression in print is rather late in the frontier era, 1873, in a newspaper reporting from the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington Territory: 


Three Indians attempted to overpower and thus obtain the keys of the prison from Indian Agent, Rev. Mr. Wilbur at Fort Simcoe, a few days since, in order to release Indian Dick, confined in the skookum house for the murder of one of his tribe.

— from the Albany (OR) Register of September 13, 1873, page 3, column 3

The editor of the above newspaper doesn’t bother to translate “skookum house“, so it would seem as if his readers were expected to already understand the term. So we can guess that it’s at least a bit older. 

A journal of the naturalist John Muir has “skookum house” in 1879, in Alaska. 

Among magazines the earliest occurrence I find is even later, though; it’s in The Century Magazine XXIX(6):842 (April 1885), in an article by Eugene V. Smalley titled “From Puget Sound to the Upper Columbia”, in a passage describing how — guess who — the Yakama Indians live:


He had recently been arrested by the [Indian] agent, put in the “skookum-house” (jail), and fined sixty dollars for having two wives.

(Bonus fact:

That same article claims the leader Indian John of the Kittitas Indians is known as a “sockalee tyee, or big chief”. This isn’t the only known occurrence of this phrase, literally ‘high chief / above chief’, in reference to a living human, as opposed to its usual meaning of ‘God’.

And that observation helps us understand how Settlers reinterpreted Chinook Jargon háyás(h) ‘big; great; major’, as in the known phrase háyásh-táyí ‘grand chief’ (to use a term that we currently see in various Canadian First Nations.

Many English-speaking newcomers, only partially inaccurately, associated háyás(h) with háyú ‘many; much’, and both with English ‘high‘. 

And then those with decent knowledge of the Jargon back-translated that as sáx̣ali ‘high; above’!

This conventionalized tangle of synonymy got put to further use by Anglophones, e.g. in the quasi-CW Northwesternism “high mucky-muck“, as if to say both CW háyú mə́kʰmək ‘(having) lots of food (to share)’ and English ‘high chief; high and mighty’, etc.) 

Returning to our subject now:

Ironically, it’s only on page 17 of the even later 1887 edition of JK Gill’s dictionary out of Portland, Oregon, that I’m finding the first occurrence of the phrase within the world of CW documentation. It’s spelled skoó-kum house and glossed as ‘jail’.

The late vintage of skookum house correlates with the phrase’s almost always occurring in just that spelling. By the last quarter of the 19th century, Chinook Jargon spelling had become in effect standardized, under the influence of the best-selling popular dictionaries of the language.

You rarely find alternate spellings of this phrase, and when you do, there is some good reason for their divergence. An example is scoocum house in a 2011 book by a modern researcher who is transcribing from an oral-history tape of some pretty fascinating quoted pidgin-style English out of northern BC:


“And he stop that scoocum house…” [I.e. he was in prison.]

— from pages 182-183 of “Processing Varieties in English: An Examination of Oral and Written Speech across Genres” by Marcia Macaulay (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011)

Incidentally, that word stop also occurs in BC Chinuk Wawa with the same meaning, ‘to be there’ — a synonym for CW míɬayt

A noteworthy feature of the above items of data is that none of the occurrences are necessarily linked with the older, creolized, souther dialect of Chinuk Wawa. Gill 1887, being Oregonian, is the closest we get to that, but his lexicon is known to be a compendium of all the Jargon he could get his hands on from various sources.

And there’s nothing about the grammar of skookum house that’s particular to the southern dialect; all of CW makes complex noun phrases in just this way, Adjective+Noun. 

Which is to say, judging from the known geographical distributions and grammar of the earliest skookum houses, it seems to be a northern-dialect expression, and of relatively recent coinage. 

Stay tuned for a further post, with new information about jails ‘n’ Jargon.

What do you think?