1853-4: “Teapot” = “skookum paper”, in 2 places 1000 km apart

One of the more impenetrable little mysteries of Chinuk Wawa may now be cleared up.

John Enrico’s “Haida Dictionary”,which I’ve just received, has this from Haida Gwaii (2005:1789) : 

S[kidegate Haida] “teapot”: (1853-4 journals of officers of H.M.S. Virago) N[oun] [‘]letter of reference[‘] Com[ment].: This word was pointed out by Helen Akrigg. It is a particularly intriguing impenetrable mistranscription, especially since is virtually non-existent in the Haida lexicon.

Theodore Winthrop’s book-length travelogue “The Canoe and the Saddle” has this, among the S’Klallam Salish people of the Port Townsend, Washington area (1863:21) :


“And now,” continued the Duke [a Native chief], drawing sundry greasy documents from the pocket of that shapeless draggle-tail coat of his, “mika tikky nanitch nika teapot; wilt thou inspect my certificates?”

This “teapot” is found also on pages 22, 58, 173, in reference to both coastal and interior tribes of North Oregon (what became the territory and then state of Washington). But its main occurrence, and only quotation, are coastal. 

Finding the same word, in disparate coastal Chinook Jargon-using areas, within a single year, suggests to my mind that “teapot” was a known term in this language. 

Specifically we have to consider it a northern-dialect usage; it’s not known to us from the Columbia River region. 

At this point I have a couple of ideas about its etymology.


(Image credit: Amazon)

First, it could be a mispronunciation of Chinuk Wawa’s pípa ‘letter(s)’. Such a thing has happened; I think of the fine book “Spuzzum: Fraser Canyon Histories 1808-1939“, which tells us of local Salish folks sometimes misinterpreting or mispronouncing CW words. Here’s an entertaining excerpt I copied out years ago: 

Another old man wanted a pail, so he made all kinds of motions
with his hands to demonstrate using a pail. Finally he told Briesta, ‘I
want lhkap.’ He keeps on saying that. He wants a pail. But another one
was real smart. An old man came in and said, ‘I know the word in English…
It’s lapot.’ Briesta says ‘Holaporte means “hurry up,” and I won’t hyak
for nobody.’ The old man meant lapot. The old chief used to like to go
to the store when he was little to watch the old people buying things. A
woman, she washes some gold, and she says, ‘I’m going over to Briesta to
get some soap.’ She didn’t know the English word and said ‘pashem‘ for
washem‘. The old chief said, “That doesn’t sound very good, what you’re
saying. I think you mean ‘washem‘. He’d figured out she meant soap.

[Key to those words:

  • lhkap is Nɬeʔkepmxcín (Thompson Salish) ɬkép ‘mortar’ that you’d use a pestle with, and it came to mean ‘bucket; pot; saucepan’ etc.
  • lapot is BC Chinuk Wawa for ‘pot’, from the earlier trade language, Canadian/Métis French; but it’s also a homophone of general CW lapo(r)t ‘door’.
  • The storekeeper Briesta chooses to take the old man’s request as an English-Chinook blend (typical for the time and locale), ‘Hol(d) lapo(r)t!’ = ‘Hold the door!’
  • Hyak is CW áyáq! ‘hurry up!’
  • Pashem ~ washem are again a typical BC CW expression for the time, using CW/English wásh with a pidgin English-style transitive suffix -em. Interestingly, the old woman knows frontier-era English/?CW ‘wash’ in connection with gold-mining as well as with washing (oneself/clothes). A possible further connection is with Nɬeʔkepmxcín Salish,which uses a verb root pés ‘inundated, flooded, soaking wet’…]

I want to conclude this thought, though, by pointing out that the word pípa was in very common use in Chinook Jargon, and that’s partly because of its association with the letters of “character”/reference (“skookum papers) that White sea captains, government authorities, and such gave to important Native people. So I have reasonable doubts that pípa would be widely mispronounced as “teapot”

Canoe-Box-2020-13_1000x.progressive (1)

Teapot? A remarkable bird bentwood box by Bruce Alfred (Kwakwaka’wakw) (image credit: Spirits of the West Coast Gallery)

So, second idea — I wouldn’t be flabbergasted to find out that folks had stored their “skookum papers” in actual teapots, on the famously damp Pacific Northwest Coast. I recall that copper teakettles were highly prized objects in 1788 among the Nuučaan’uɬ people. Maybe some Native people viewed them as equivalent to traditional decorated wooden storage boxes. 

In that case, “teapot” would be a metonymy, a reference to “skookum papers” by the thing that they were often stored in.

Bonus fact:

I can’t forget to tell you that “teapot” is definitely a northern-dialect Chinuk Wawa word, according to JMR Le Jeune 1924, meaning … ‘teapot’!

Tʰí is also CW, meaning ‘tea’.

In the southern dialect, ‘pot’ has usually been expressed by kítɬən (which is ‘bucket’ at Grand Ronde) or kʰétəl (which is ‘kettle’ at Grand Ronde). 

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?