Correcting the etymology of p’ú ‘to shoot’: it’s Nootka Jargon

A separate discovery in Captain George “Vancouver’s Discovery of Puget Sound“, edited by Edmond S. Meany (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1957)…


“Poo!” (Image credit: What Guns Were Like in 1792)

In 1792 as the first Euro-Americans to visit Puget Sound, Vancouver’s crew encountered the Dxʷləšucid (Lushootseed Salish) people of Vashon Island, nowadays a Seattle suburb.

These people exclaimed “poo!” at the novelty of every gunshot that they observed (151).

So fixated were they on that marvel that, to any questions from the White “Drifters”, they answered “poo! poo!” while pointing to a nearby island where the latter had been bird-hunting.

“Poo!” could be taken for a Chinuk Wawa word, except that…

…1792 is way too early, and, not even a single other Chinook Jargon word, or Nootka Jargon word for that matter, is cited.

However, “poo!” does seem to be an isolated loan from puu ‘gun’ in Nuuchahnulth to these people who had only heard of such contraptions.

/puu/ is pretty much universal among the Southern Wakashan (Nuuchahnulth) languages and dialects, meaning ‘gun; rifle’, to judge from the valuable “T’aat’aaqsapa” dictionary. (Which, erroneously I think, labels the word as “from Chinook Jargon”!) A separate root is used for ‘shooting’, I imagine repurposed from ‘shooting arrows’; see the next paragraph.

Central Coast Salish words for ‘shoot’ and ‘gun’ are very different from this: Dxʷləšucid has xʷúltəb-àlc ‘gun’, literally ‘Drifters-bow (and arrow)’, using the pre-Chinook Jargon word for White people, who were later called Bostons, and a native suffix for ‘bow’. (Compare Interior Salish ‘metal-bow’.)

One of the nicest proofs of the “Nootka” origin of “poo!” is the modern S’Klallam Coast Salish — neighbours of the Nuuchahnulth — word for ‘gun’, púya(ʔ)kʷ ~ púyək.

This word, which has no sensible etymology within S’Klallam (which, besides, has changed a lot of its native /p/ to /č/), is a loan from an otherwise undocumented Nuuchahnulth noun puu-y’akʷ ~’gun-instrument, shooting-instrument’!

Here I should mention that the excellent 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary gives the etymology of p’ú, as the word for ‘shoot’ is pronounced there, as coming from Chinookan pú or púpu ‘blow’.

While that shape & meaning combination is widespread in the Pacific Northwest (often with a final xʷ, and also occurring in Salish & Nuuchahnulth!), I feel we can now confidently assert that the word instead traces to Nuuchahnulth.

Therefore, “poo” was introduced to the Columbia River region by early Drifters, who were trying to speak Nootka Jargon.

Indigenous languages of that area, such as Southwest Washington Salish, use quite different root-words for ‘guns’ and ‘shooting’, which suggests that they had not yet heard of “poo” from Native neighbors.

Bonus fact:

We might add that p’ú is possibly also a noun, from the evidence in George Gibbs’ 1863 dictionary of Fort Vancouver-area CW, where he notes < moxt poo > ‘a double-barrelled gun’ and < tohum poo > ‘a six-shooter’. I say ‘possibly a noun’ because those phrases can be seen as containing numerical adverbs, ‘twice’ and ‘six times’, according to known Jargon grammar; the analysis remains indeterminate.

What do you think?