Was “músum” a naughty word from the start?

Franz Boas 1892 observed, with charming vagueness, that the word mamuk (‘do, make’) “has acquired an obscene meaning,”*


Unintentional hilarity! (Image credit: Amazon)

…and with total inaccuracy, that this very fundamental verb “is no longer in use on the Columbia River.”

But we already knew. from earlier evidence, that there were naughty words in Jargon.

Several of these failed to appear in the published dictionaries of the time, for which we can only blame Settler approximations of Victorian morality.

And yet those body-part nouns and other earthy expressions show up folks’ private diaries, newspaper pieces, etc. from that time, among other evidence.

Some, but not all, of the Jargon’s naughty bits were easily recognizable to Settlers as cussin’. Casual spoken English had a big influence on Chinuk Wawa, as it did on the West Coast variety of Chinese Pidgin English, so both pidgins included words like “damn”, “hell”, and so on.

Other words considered taboo by one or more of the ethnic groups that spoke CW to each other came from Indigenous languages.

One naughty Chinuk Wawa word that shows right up in every dictionary, though, is musum, which everyone soberly agreed to define as ‘to sleep’.

This verb ‘sleep’ is innocuous per se, isn’t it?

But, a generation before Boas’s 1892 article, by 1874 (when the whorehouse in question closed), there were already Chinook-infused Settler songs like the infamous and much-improvised-upon folk tune “Seattle Illahee“, using “moosum” (musum) in highly indecent ways.

As a noun. Especially in the Diminutive form, as tənəs-músum. Literally, that would be ‘a small sleep’. It wasn’t being used literally. So tənəs-músum means…how to define this in the absence of accepted dictionary phrasings…’a screw’.

Also note, it’s been mentioned by our friend Dale McCreery of Bella Coola, BC, that a known Jargon phrase músum-stìk there means ‘penis’. I’ll pause while you do the mental translation.

Okay, now:

I’ll add that in order to be what my research has found to be a valid, typical Chinook Jargon compound word, this músum-stìk has to be composed of 2 nouns. Thus, músum here (as in the notorious “Seattle Illahee” lyrics) is further evidence that we need to add to our dictionaries a non-verbal sense of this word: ‘sexual intercourse’.

The naughty connotations of musum are found in both dialects, southern and northern, which itself testifies that this is an old and established usage — the southern dialect being significantly older.

*Bonus facts:


The naughty mámuk, unlike its “decent” senses, seems to only be a transitive verb. Here I’m going by the examples given in the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary. So I would amend its definition from ‘to cohabit’ to say ‘to cohabit with(have intercourse with) someone. “Decent” mamuk can be used intransitively, to mean stuff like ‘work’ (to do work, at a job etc.).


Even the etymology of musum may be naughty.

It’s demonstrably a Southwest Washington Salish word, not from any other source language. Specifically, it seems probable this word came from Cowlitz or Upper Chehalis, the two sister languages spoken nearest Forts Vancouver and Nisqually.

(Quinault and the early documentation of Lower Chehalis show other words for ‘sleep’ instead, as do the nearby relatives Tillamook and Lushootseed, and Klallam.)

The Cowlitz & Upper Chehalis form, m(‘)ús-m, in fact has no plausible cognates anywhere in Salish…except for a Proto-Salish form *mus meaning ‘to feel about; touch’.

In the modern languages, linguist Aert Kuipers found this root *mus ‘touch’ only far away, in Nuxalk (Bella Coola) on the BC coast, as well as in the Interior Salish languages.

Is the existence of an identical root, used to mean ‘sleep’, in SW Washington Salish, a survival of the same ancient form?

Is the connection via an idea of ‘groping someone’?

Was this, then, already a mildly dirty word at the time it entered early Chinuk Wawa? (Much as English speakers automatically take ‘sleep with’ and ‘do someone’ to connote sex, and ‘drink’ to refer to alcohol.)

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?