1930s: Chinook in Oregon loggers’ lingo

Some say we should be bringing back certain 1930s Great Depression-era good ideas, like a Green New Deal…

…I say, I wish the Federal Writers Project would return!

Check out this snippet from one of their publications, “Loggers’ Jargon” (Oregon Oddities and Items of Interest, Series 2, Number 5) (Portland: Works Progress Administration of Oregon, no date).


The following is the only direct connection in the booklet between loggers’ jargon and Chinook Jargon:


Indian words adopted from Chinook jargon by Pacific Coast loggers include “potlatch“, social gatherings; “tillicum“, friend; and “skookum“, strong.

That’s a truly indicative little sampling!

The first 2 words cited are given their normal definition as they have long been used in English, among White peopleBy contrast, within Chinuk Wawa, these are usually pá(t)lach ‘to give’ (a whole ‘nother part of speech!) and tílixam ‘people, person’.

This Settler orientation is why I’m surprised to see the 3rd word defined with its normal, fluent, inside-of-Chinook-Jargon meaning, ‘strong’. As I read through the above paragraph, I was expecting < skookum > to be explained as ‘good, excellent’, which is the typical White-on-White use of it, especially in PNW English. Maybe whatever loggers the FWP writers interviewed did use this word as ‘excellent’, but then maybe the interviewers turned to a Chinook dictionary for a definition?

At any rate, our little vignette today is a good occasion to point out that the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest hasn’t historically been a multiethnic setting comparable to the one in which Chinuk Wawa flourished.

  • Logging as we know it came about later, after the region was numerically, economically, and linguistically dominated by Euro-Americans, with their railroads for easy transportation of our natural resources.
  • People of many ethnic backgrounds took part in the logging biz, but these tended to be Northern European ethnicities.
  • I’ve read piles of logger memoirs, histories, and such, and I’m not sure I’ve once come upon an example of workers spontaneously talking Chinook with each other.

That’s not to deny that Indigenous people did work in timber extraction, especially in frontier days and in “backwater” locales, as well as, I imagine, in sawmills. Many “Indians” did paid labour in PNW canneries and on ranches, so why not in timber processing too? It’s likely that the known currency of CW in canning and cowboying would’ve been paralleled to some extent in other intercultural work settings that Native people participated in, in a certain period.

And I’ve read and, in conversation, heard the memories that anthropologist Jay V. Powell has of old Olympic Peninsula loggers he met in the 1960s who spoke Chinuk Wawa in full sentences, and considered it a tool of their trade. That makes sense, for their specific time and place (I infer that they were remembering, say, the 1910s to 1930s).

But in the published booklets of “logger talk”, including this other one, I’ve often found only a few Chinook words. Only a few.

Which is about the same percentage you’d expect in an accurate document of anyone’s casual way of speaking in our region, post-frontier.

And the Chinook words found, e.g. the < cultus > in the book I just mentioned, are actually the same English slang that you’ll find documented by authorities such as the DARE (Dictionary of American Regional English) as being known by all kinds of PNW folks, not just loggers.

All of this is to say that today’s snippet from the 1930s federally funded writers seems quite accurate — as a reflection of how Settlers talked English!

What do you think?