Clarifying the etymology of mət’ɬáxwəs

There’s a Chinuk Wawa word for ‘eye matter’ in the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary, which is so easy to order & so useful, you’d better pause now and get one sent to you.


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That word is mət’ɬáxwəs.

‘Eye matter’, I think, would be mucus, what I grew up calling ‘sleep sand’ or ‘eye boogers’, depending on whether it’s dried out.

The word is known to us only from the Grand Ronde community.

The source of this mət’ɬáxwəs is partially clear to us, as it kind of obviously includes the same Chinookan bound root -áxwəs that we see in Chinuk Wawa’s siyáxus.

I suppose that that bound root has a basic meaning of ‘eye(s)’, considering that our siyáxus is a Chinookan “dual” noun, whose s- means ‘two’ of something.

The first part of the word has remained murky…

Well, then, what does mə́t’ɬ mean in Chinookan?

  • I feel some confidence in saying that we have here the Chinookan root mə́t’ɬ ‘wet’, occurring as a freestanding, un-inflected word (“particle”) in the Lower Chinookan of Q’lti a.k.a. Charles Cultee, as seen in Franz Boas’s “Chinook Texts” as < mᴇʟ¡ > (1894:37).
  • In the other Lower Chinookan language, I haven’t found a word for ‘wet’ or its synonyms in Boas’s “Kathlamet Texts” collection, also from Q’lti.
  • Now, in Clackamas Upper Chinookan, I find quite different words for ‘wet’, t’ɬwə́lq or t’ɬwə́lq•t’ɬwəlq (e.g. page 177 of volume 1 in Melville Jacobs’ text collection, 1958) and p’ásp’as (e.g. on page 419 of volume 2).
  • Kiksht Upper Chinookan also doesn’t have a word for ‘wet’ that I’m noticing in Sapir’s 1901 “Wishram Texts”.

So, from this extremely limited data on the distribution of Chinookan ‘wet’ words, it would seem as if mət’ɬáxwəs more likely traces to a Lower Chinookan mə́t’ɬ ‘wet’ than an Upper Chinookan source.

And that’s my contribution towards a more robust etymology for this rare Jargon word mət’ɬáxwəs.

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?