And more about (the) venereal

Just recently I showed you that “Chinook” in a number of interior Pacific Northwest languages became the word for ‘venereal disease’.


Firey (image credit: Battle for Dream Island Wiki)

This was never, to my knowledge, a use for the word “Chinook” within Chinuk Wawa.

So how did CW speak of sexually transmitted infections?

As with other subjects considered taboo by the oldtime dictionary makers, this one isn’t very amply documented. It’s hard to find out the words for ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’ from the early lexicographers of Chinook Jargon, although these were surely much in use, since this is historically an informal language.

(‘Testicles’ and ‘breasts’ are in nearly all old word lists, though, as the former was openly referred to in connection with farm animals, and the latter wasn’t yet a sexualized, prohibited topic in Settler culture. An expression for ‘have sex’ in Chinook is well known, but mainly because it was in a popular song, not in printed dictionaries.)

But we have some information on Chinook “VD”.

As Paisley reminded me in one of our recent Saturday “Snass Session” classes (hayu masi Paisley!), George Gibbs in 1863 reported piah sick ‘the venereal disease’. That’s literally the ‘fire / fiery illness’.

This spelling is modernized as pʰaya-sik in CTGR 2012; that dictionary chooses to spell older occurrences of the word for ‘fire’ as pʰaya, but later ones as paya.

CTGR aptly points us also to pʰaya-lamatsin ‘Spanish fly (an aphrodisiac)’. Now that would be quite a racy word to find in an 1800s dictionary! Checking the original source, we see its translation is ‘Spanish flies’, in the plural, without the parenthetical naughty bit. On doing a bit of checking, though, it’s fair to say that in the 19th century this substance, “cantharides” or “the blistering fly”, was more widely used for non-sexual medical applications, e.g. for the skin and the lungs. So in fact, this phrase (literally ‘fire-medicine’) is unrelated to sexual concerns.

It’s initially a bit shocking to see a Catholic priest of the era, Québec-born Louis-Napoléon St Onge (1842-1901), reporting in his 1892 manuscript dictionary two expressions that he translates as ‘venereal’, shem-ikta & itluil. But on a moment’s reflection about their respective literal meanings (‘shame(ful)-thing’ and ‘(of the) body’), we see that these are ways for him to preach about the Bible’s injunctions against the pleasures of the flesh. That is, LNSO wasn’t going into any detail at all about such practices. Instead, we’re seeing his usual antique formal English, which I imagine he learned from books. (For example he translates CW makuk as ‘vend’, and maliash as ‘hymen’ — a Classical Greek reference.)

The main lesson here is that ‘venereal’ meant more than one thing in the English language of the 1800s. One of those senses was unlikely to be documented in published Settler vocabularies, but the other was tame.

The second takeaway for me is that there most definitely are Chinook Jargon words for all sorts of “facts of life”. Sometimes you have to do a great deal of searching and inference to track them down!

Bonus fact:

Senior Chinuk Wawa scholar Jay V. Powell published a good little paper on the kinds of words that got left out of oldtime CW dictionaries. It’s a good read.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?