A tongue-tied etymology for ‘Cowlitz’

A number of claims have been advanced, doubtless based on the most authoritative information then available, about the literal meaning of the tribe-and-language name “Cowlitz”.


Frenectomy? What’s that mean? (Image credit: Cowlitz River Dental Surgery)

Being one of the earliest documented proper names in this state, and also the name of (1) one of the first Euro-American settlements, (2) a major county, and (3) an important river in southwest Washington state, káwlits “Cowlitz” has received a lot of attention. 

(I’m putting all Indigenous-language words in today’s article into the Grand Ronde style of spelling, to lessen any confusion about how to pronounce them.) 

  • Washington State Place Names“, following the respected Edmond Meany, who refers to the venerable Dr. W. Fraser Tolmie, connects “Cowlitz” with < tawallitch > ‘capturing the medicine spirit’ — actually a folk etymology inspired by Salish < tla-quill-augh > (t’ɬaʔkʷílx) ‘medicine man’. An article on the tribe’s website paraphrases this same idea as ‘seeker‘. Most other sources are in line with this, referencing traditional spiritual practices.
  • Some, though, claim it means ‘river of shifting sands‘…A simple Google Books search reveals that this exact phrase was already a set expression in American English by pioneer times, referring to the Arkansas River, the Missouri River, etc. etc. One pioneer claimed that Sacagawea named the river thus, in her Shoshone language; it would be a marvel if one person’s extremely early-contact word for it had caught on among the local Indigenous people!
  • However, káwlits, according to linguist M. Dale Kinkade, “apparently referred [in the Cowlitz Salish language] primarily to the river; the origin of the name is unknown” (page 249 of his 1997 paper on “Cowlitz (Salish) Place Names”). Dale was virtually the only researcher to do serious work on analyzing and understanding that language, so I take his conclusions very seriously. 

I dunno if I have the answer about its origin, but after a couple decades of pondering while researching southwest Washington languages, here’s my best hypothesis (and I think it’s got a more solid basis to it than the ideas above) …


In fact, in neighboring Lower Chehalis Salish, the word is documented just that way, as k’áwləc.

Here I’m suggesting this structure:

  • a root — otherwise unknown in Cowlitz but definitely Chinookan —  *k’áw ‘tie(d)’
  • the “stem extender” suffix -(ə)l which is found before lots of “lexical suffixes” in Cowlitz
  • the lexical suffix -əts ‘mouth, speech, language’

My thinking is that this speculative analysis could work, if we can suppose a Chinookan-Salish “calque” on an idea that’s well documented in Chinuk Wawa:

k’áw-lalàng ‘mute, unable to speak’ (literally ‘tied-tongue’)

I just don’t know how outlandish this proposal is or isn’t.

In its favour, we do find a good number of loaned words changing hands between Southwest Washington Salish languages including (Lower) Cowlitz and the unrelated Lower Chinookan languages (Kathlamet is the neighbour of Cowlitz). I’ve often written about one manifestation of this, some Chinuk Wawa words that have 2 simultaneous etymologies due to their having ancestry in both Lower Chinookan and Salish: 

  • An example is kʰámuksh ‘dog’, which looks to be a Salish root for ‘breast, nipple’ with a Chinookan noun-plural suffix.
  • Another is t’ɬəmínxwət ‘to (tell a) lie’ — a word that has to be Salish, but it’s only known in Lower Chinookan.

Now, “Cowlitz” is apparently some sort of exonym, like “Sioux” and “Eskimo”, which are other tribes’ insulting names for the Lakhota and the Inuit.  

I say this because what the Lower Cowlitz Salish call themselves is the stɬ’púlmx ~ ‘the lower people, the people below’, apparently the ‘downriver folks’. That’s a purely native Salish word, s- t’ɬə́p -úl -mx (Noun- below -StemExtender -people). (But for fun, note Lower Chinookan also has t’ɬlə́p ‘under water’!)

This is a good place to mention that the demonstrably native Upper Chehalis Salish (northern neighbors) word for ‘the Taidnapam or Cowlitz [Sahaptian speakers]’ is given by M. Dale Kinkade in his dictionary as t’ɬa[-]l[-]ámuxʷ, which appears to me to be related to Cowlitz Salish t’ɬa[-]l[-]kʷ ‘go upstream’…because –ámuxʷ is ‘people’ and –kʷ is ‘water’.

So then…what if it was the inhabitants of the upper Cowlitz River who were getting called “Cowlitz” by the lower river Chinookans & Salish?

That upriver region, off to the northeast toward Mount Rainier, was traditionally Taidnapam-speaking, i.e. a third unrelated language group — Sahaptians.

In this scenario, then, a group of people who were less frequently encountered by inter-allied Chinookans and Salish downstream, and who spoke a language quite unlike theirs, would’ve been called the “mute people”, the “ones who don’t know how to talk”.

Thus, *k’áw-(ə)l-əts.

Such exonyms, ones that kind of insult folks’ way of talking, are known in many places on Earth.

  • The Slavs call the Germans némets ‘mute’.
  • The Ancient Greeks called lots of foreigners barbarians, that is, those who could only say “bar bar”.
  • The Siouan languages call the Cheyennes šahíyela, which (according at least to folk etymology) means ‘little whisperers’.
  • Siouan users of Plains Sign Language call the Cheyennes “red talkers”, considering themselves to be “white talkers”. 

View for yourself the other Salish roots that are of the right shape to help explain “Cowlitz”; do you feel that any of these are better explanations than my “borrowed Chinookan/Chinuk Wawa k’áw” idea ?

  • káw ‘sister-in-law’ (in Cz (Cowlitz Salish))
  • káw ‘settle down (to live)’ (Cz)
  • káw’l ‘pretend’ (Cz)
  • qáw’ ‘water’ (a variant of the normal qál) (Lower Chehalis Salish)
  • qə́w ‘burn’ (Upper Chehalis Salish)

I should take a moment as well to deal with the variant “Cowelitsk” (among other spellings). It’s the first documented form of the name (Lewis & Clark had it as “Coweliske” in 1805-1806). Cowlitz Salish itself has this as qəwlə́cq, Lower Chehalis as qəwlítsq, Upper Chehalis Salish as k’áwlicq’. This reflects the use of a further Salish lexical suffix added to k(‘)áwlits, likely to be SW Washington Salish -q meaning ‘head’ or ‘speech, language’. I gather that it means ‘speakers of the tongue-tied language’. The -q shouldn’t mean ‘head’ (upstream source) of a river, since I haven’t found it used that way in other words, and these Salish people lived on the lower reaches! 

Bonus fact:

My impression of the Sahaptian-origin loanwords in lower Cowlitz Salish (there’s a helpful list of them in Kinkade’s 2004 dictionary) is that they’re not numerous, and they’re mostly place names and a couple ritual-associated cultural objects such as drums and war clubs.

This is quite a different picture from the overlap we see between Lower Chinookan (specifically Kathlamet) and Cowlitz, where I see words that refer more to everyday life.

Perhaps this difference could reflect the different levels of closeness in these groups’ relationships? Did they have a relationship of a similar closeness as what the Lower Chehalis Salish & the Natítanui (Shoalwater-Clatsop) Chinookans had?

Would this account for jointly calling upper Cowlitz River people weird talkers?

What do you think?