Hawai’i Pidgin “high makamaka” helps us bust a Jargon myth

No, this is not a newly revealed secret etymology of a Chinook Jargon phrase…

38267292_2176621795905028_8699966375608713216_n(Image credit: High Maka Maka)

Instead, we have here a further development that helps us bust a linguistic myth!

In Hawai’ian Pidgin (which is actually a creole language of many generations there), people call somebody who’s putting on airs “high makamaka”.

Sounds Hawai’ian eh?

Makamaka in the Hawai’ian language has 3 definitions in the reputable dictionary I consulted:

1. n., Intimate friend with whom one is on terms of receiving and giving freely; pal, buddy; host. Figuratively, anything very helpful, as education.

Examples: Kona makamaka, his friend.
     Related: hoʻomakamaka Caus/sim.; To befriend, be a friend to, make a friend, cause to be friends.
Cf. hoʻokāmakamaka.

          Hoʻomakamaka wahine, to make friends with a woman.
     References: Cf. maka, beloved.

2. Reduplication of maka, raw, fresh.

3. n., Buds, as forming on the corm of a taro.

I think it would be hard to make a case that any of these is behind our “high makamaka”!

Always in historical linguistic word, which includes any attempt to trace the source of an expression, we have to take timing into account.

And “high makamaka” is a slangy expression, so it doesn’t show up in print much.

I’ve only found it starting in 1899 in newspapers in Hawai’i, a place that had a lively press for decades before that.

And the first occurrence I’ve located in books is a 1975 quotation of Hawai’ians.

How about back on the continent?

Well, the earliest examples I tend to find of “high muckymuck” and “high muckamuck” as a label for a person seem to come from California (1859+), where “high muck a muck” at first mostly referenced Native and East Asian people. (!!!) From its sound and meaning, I daresay this expression had no connection with Chinook Jargon, nor with California Pidgin Spanish / English / CJ chemuck ‘food’.

This phrase became widely used in the central & eastern USA from the 1870s.

Not until the quite late date of 1889 do we find it in contemporarily Chinook Jargon-speaking country, with Washington state newspaper appearances from 1889 and BC from the 1890’s.

It’s only about that time, in 1890, that someone seems to have thought of connecting “high muckamuck” (etc.) to Chinook Jargon — and, wonderfully, his published note about it included a variant Chinook translation of the popular song “Lilly Dale” that’s new to us!

This information made its appearance in the grandma of the internet, the community of minds that was the journal “Notes & Queries“.

The N&Q thread began with “Orog” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania commenting on some distinctive Western USA place names:


Singular Place Names (Vol. v, p. 237). — Muck, a locality in Washington I think should read Muckamuck; Kunetux [sic] was formerly Wake Kunetux, but has been contracted. Both are Chinook words, the former meaning “food;” the latter, “I do not understand.” The following words are or have been legitimate names in California. Boot-jack Ranch, Jackass Flat, Dead Mule Gulch, Devil’s Kitchen, Shoe Fly, Shantytown, Slabtown, Hangtown, (now Placerville), You Bet, Whisky Flat, Poker Flat and Yuba Dam. The last named offers an apparent apology in its orthography, though unfortunately for the apology the name existed before a dam was constructed across Yuba river. Hell Roaring Forks and Dirty Devil River are names for which we may thank the Geological Survey.


“W.P.R.” of Little Rock, Arkansas replied, mentioning the phrase we’re looking into today:


Muckamuck (Vol. v, p. 258). — Your correspondent, “Orog,” tells us that muckamuck is the Chinook for food, but all through the Western country, High Muckamuck means “a great man,” “a big chief;” at least, I have often heard it so used. I have even heard a local great man called a “high duke,” which is, I suppose, the German haiduck, a retainer; and the Hungarian hajduk, which at first meant a shepherd, and, later, a peasant with many of the privileges of a nobleman. This identification is, however, only conjectural.


The first correspondent chimed back in to specify that “high muckamuck” isn’t Chinuk Wawa at all:

high muck

Muckamuck (Vol. v, p. 271). — W.R.P. should cultivate classical Chinook instead of Chinook slang. High Muckamuck is the slangiest kind of slang, that means nothing [in Chinuk Wawa]. Hiu muckamuck means literally “big feed,” or “plenty of food.” The expression High Muckamuck is certainly in use in the west [in English], as W.R.P. says, but it is in very bad style, as Chinook style goes. The proper expression for “chief” is tyee — for great chief, hyas tyee. If W.R.P. wishes to acquaint himself with the kind of literature that is representative of the Chinook “400,” he might study the style and diction of the following classical selection:

“Oh Lilly, klose Lilly, hyas klose Lilly Dale!
Alto tipso mitite kopa
Tenas memaloos house
Nika kli-hium stik illahee.”


So high muckamuck (etc.) didn’t start life as a Chinuk Wawa expression. This disproves many, many claims made in dictionaries, books, websites, and so forth.

The fact that the phrase high makamaka appeared in Hawai’i only after all of this is further evidence that it wasn’t invented there.

Instead, high muckymuck (etc.) was probably imported to the islands via the very frequent visits of ships from the US filled with American English speakers.

The neat twist is that it then appears to have gotten “Hawai’ianized” in its pronunciation!

Bonus fact:

There’s a fur-trade connection with “The Four Hundred” of New York City society’s Gilded Age. You can follow the link above to figure it out!

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