What Chinook do you remember? “kapn nos”

Dale McCreery, a Michif who lives in Bella Coola, mentioned on the Facebook “Chinook Jargon” group something that he’s heard in that area:

Heard a phrase in an old story for the guy who is pulling the bow of the boat – kapn nos. This was for guys going up the Skeena hauling freight. There’s nicknames and such for guys going back before 1900 around Bella Coola involving the word Captain – is it used in the Kamloops Wawa?

Along with Alex Code, who responded to this question in the affirmative, I agree that “captain” is a common word in northern-dialect Chinuk Wawa.

It’s one of the zillions of English-sourced words that never show up in most old CW dictionaries, for the reason that readers would already understand them. But in fact it is in the superb little Demers-Blanchet-St Onge dictionary of 1871, written < kapten >, as the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary points out to us.

Alex shared an illustrative quotation from a Native-written letter that I include in my draft dictionary of BC CW:

Pi alta kaptin iaka wawa, “tlus, pus kakwa maika tomtom, tlus klatwa aiak.”
‘And then the captain said, “All right, if that’s how you feel, get right out of here.” ‘

“Captain”, in the Jargon as used all over the Northwest, is an especially frequent word when applied to respected Indigenous men. I believe that’s the main meaning people understood it to have. Examples include:

  • Kaptin Shorsh ‘Captain George’, the chief at Skwah in Stó:lō country (Kamloops Wawa #79, 21 May 1893); 
  • Adil Lui kaptin iaka kluchmin ‘Adele, Louis the captain’s wife’ at Spahomin/Douglas Lake, BC (Kamloops Wawa #114a, March 1894); 
  • Kaptin Shim ‘Captain Jim’ in the same community (same issue of KW), and on and on. 

The word is also extended to use in Biblical stories:

Klaska lolo Shosip kopa Ishipt pi Putifar, kaptin
‘Joseph was brought to Egypt and Potiphar, captain‘ 

kopa solshirs, iaka makuk iaka.
‘over the soldiers, bought him.’

— Kamloops Wawa #18a (20 March 1892), page 72

The example just cited happens to relate “captain” to “soldiers”, but I think especially in BC that’s just a coincidence. Native people in the interior — Kamloops’s area — would have had little experience of the military.

The word “captain” was more associated with stim bot ‘steamboats’, which were the main means of long-distance travel in British Columbia before trains and automobile roads took over.

That said, let’s take note that Dale’s kapn nos relates to onshore workers pulling (“lining”) a boat upstream, not to a boat’s captain.

And Dale reported not just a word but a phrase, kapn nos. That word nos for ‘nose’, i.e. the front tip of a canoe or boat, is well known in Jargon quite far back in time. Here’s what George Gibbs (1863) reports from Fort Vancouver-area Jargon:

Screenshot 2023-01-26 085458

I feel sure that < boat nose > (pót-nùs) must sometimes have gotten shortened to nús. Chinook Jargon prefers shorter phrases over long ones, whenever possible, so the concept of a pót-nùs-kʰàptən ‘boat’s-nose-captain’ or a nickname kʰáptən pót-nùs ‘Captain Boat’s-Nose’ would always tend to be reduced to something like, guess what, kʰáptən nús.

That’s what Dale wrote in Nuxalk Salish style as kapn nos.

Bonus fact:

Gibbs’ definition of Chinook Jargon’s nose in English as ‘nose; promontory’ — that’s a point of land — shows the clear influence of SW Washington Salish traditional metaphors on the Jargon. In the local Salish languages, one and the same “lexical suffix” -(a)qs means both ‘nose’ and ‘a point of land’ poking out over the water. I’ve not seen this metaphor in Chinookan.


Leave a Comment here, or message me in Facebook, or email: 

s p o k a n e i v y @ g m a i l . c o m