A little older (folk) etymology, and synonyms, for kabréys?

The experts all agree that “cabresse” is a North American French borrowing from the Spanish-speaking cattle herders of the American Southwest, perhaps via Louisiana. I agree too, but…


(Image credit: VectorStock)

…there’s always more to the story, and that story is relevant to Chinook Jargon because CJ has kabréys from its Canadian French ancestors. 

Let’s break this story into 3 conceptual chunks.

A. from American Spanish

Cabresse” is a horsehair rope — note that material! — in Valdman’s huge Louisiana French dictionary, with an example usage shown under lâche: “La selle a tombé parce que la cabresse était lâche.” (‘The saddle fell off because the horse-hair rope was loose.’)

This view of cabresse in Acadian (Louisiana) French, as a “horsehair rope”, is confirmed by another study that notes it came from SW USA Spanish cabestro along with a number of other cowboying words.

B. from Norman French (a folk etymology?)

An intriguing folk etymology within the northwest France dialects that formed much of the foundation of Canadian French has been proposed by one scholar: 

cabresse ety

CABRESSE, mot français du Canada (V. Mém. de Smithsonian Inst.) avec le sens de lasso, à physionomie péj., mais à radical inconnu. En définitive très-prob., d’après sa terminaison féminine, affectionnée du norm., c’est l’adjectif d’un nom sous-entendu, corde par ex., corde cabresse, celle qui fait cabrer, comme le lasso.

CABRESSE, French word from Canada (see Mem. of Smithsonian Inst.) With the meaning of lasso, having a pej[orative] physiognomy [appearance?], but with an unknown root. It is quite likely, judging by its feminine ending — which is an affective form in the Norm[andie dialect of French] — to be the adjective of an implied noun, corde ‘rope’ for example, corde cabresse ‘rearing rope’, ‘that which makes [a horse] rear up’, like the lasso.

C. something older? (maybe more folk etymology?)

Another folk etymology, the product of my own mind, would be to wonder if “cabresse” could have had some antecedent (also) in French “cable”? The peerless Online Etymology Dictionary notes that that word, in English, comes from Norman French where it meant, guess what, a ‘lasso, rope, halter for cattle’! 

And here’s a Louisiana-French study that defines “(la) cabresse” in terms of “(le) cable”.

And here’s the southern Michif (French-Cree of Turtle Mountain, North Dakota) entry for plain old “rope”! (From Laverdure & Allard 1983.)

rope — aen kawbl, awn kawbr, aen kawb

(Note especially the variant having a final “R” sound, as being perhaps relevant to cabresse.)

Another southern Michif data point: Norman Fleury’s Michif dictionary, at the Gabriel Dumont Institute website, gives essentially the same word for ‘rope’:

lasso (also ‘rope’) — aen kaab

By contrast, Fleury reports that a horse’s ‘halter’ is, as in Turtle Mountain, aen likoo, literally ‘a the neck’, with the noun having the same form as in Chinuk Wawa likú. (As opposed to moo/too/soo koo ‘my/your/her/his neck’, to cite the Turtle Mountain spellings.)


I’m proposing that it’s possible, even probable, that the above 3 etymologies of kabreys are all relevant to the word’s history in Chinuk Wawa. 

Bonus fact:

From the looks of such data as we’ve seen so far, it may have been in the Pacific Northwest that “cabresse” evolved from its usual North American French connotation of a rope braided from fibers such as horsehair, and sometimes (used as) an animal halter…

into a synonym for Chinuk Wawa’s skín-lúp ‘a rawhide’ (George Gibbs 1863:16, southern dialect skin lope ‘a raw hide, riata, or thong’). 

That, in turn, was not so much a kind of rope or cable, but rather a synonym for ləhwét ‘a whip’. Which came from North American French le fouet ‘a whip; a lash’. We’re able to narrow down the variety of French because “metropolitan” French, Paris-style, would pronounce this word [ləfwe], whereas Canadians and such would pronounce the final [t]. Anyway, as far as I’m aware, a whip would’ve been made of the same tough material as a rawhide, no? 

And we might tentatively infer that skín-lúp was likely the earliest word for ‘a whip’ in Jargon, seeing as how we know that its source language English was present in the CW mix from the earliest documented date. French wasn’t, not yet.

‘Skin-rope’ was perhaps followed in Fort Vancouver times by the voyageurs’ French pair of terms, kabréys and ləhwét

Here we can pause for a moment to acknowledge that we’re looking at a process that kept on happening with Chinook Jargon. This language was not necessarily always taking in lots of new words, even though its stock of morphemes and lexemes was always small. Jargon was actually more conscious & intentional, in real-life use. With these facts in mind, it’s interesting that two separate French words came in, about the same time, for a single concept.

But, you know what, in cases like that, one word usually wins out, and sure enough, ləhwét became widely used while kabréys remained a localism at Grand Ronde. This was true to such an extent that it got verbalized: mamuk-ləhwét ‘to whip (someone/an animal)’. 

And yet, after Chinuk Wawa was put through the “bottleneck” event of shedding lots of vocabulary in its sudden transplantation to British Columbia circa 1858, both of these words became strangers to northern CW — which then borrowed hwip from English!

What do you think?